Why Black History Matters for Community Psychology



Volume 51 Number 1 
Winter 2018

Why Black History Matters for Community Psychology

Written by Dominique Thomas, Georgia State University, dthomas60@gsu.edu

February is Black History Month and for another year we use this month to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of Black people. But what importance does this have for community psychology? To explain, I will briefly discuss the origin of Black History Month and how history is passed down through generations. I will also discuss the benefits of knowing and being taught Black history. I will also touch on Black history’s relationship with community psychology and conclude with highlighting Black contributions to psychology and society.

Origin of Black History Month

Carter G. Woodson, considered the father of Black history, was born in 1875 to formerly enslaved African Americans. He was the 2nd African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. He and others created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. He believed that Black history should be used as a foundation for young Black people to build upon to be productive members of society: “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” In 1926, he would create Negro History Week. The month of February was chosen because of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). Eventually, it would become Black History Month in 1970. One important question to ask: how is this history promoted and communicated?

How History is Passed Down

In my African American Psychology class, we discuss the philosophical origins of the field. African American Psychology is largely informed by concepts based in African philosophies. One such concept is orality. This preference for receiving information orally takes many forms. For African Americans during slavery, this was vital to maintaining life-sustaining cultural practices and customs from the continent without the benefit (or the right) of being literate. Currently, you can say it comes in the form of art forms such as spoken word performances and hip-hop. When I think of these stories we tell ourselves and everyone else, what are their goals? What do they communicate? One answer is racial socialization.

Racial socialization refers to messages parents give to their children about race, how it will impact them, their place in society, and how to cope with it. These racial socialization messages may happen verbally and non-verbally, intentionally and unintentionally, and with different types of content. Parents may engage in cultural socialization to promote racial pride; they may tell their children the stories of great Black activists such Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. They may also tell their children they voted for the first African American president Barack Obama. Parents may also prepare their children for racial bias and discrimination. They may tell their children about the L.A. riots after the beating of Rodney King or the non-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Parents use personal and collective histories to educate their children on their place in society and how their Blackness affects it. This knowledge of history can be a beneficial resource for the future.

Benefits of Knowing and Being Taught Black History

Chapman-Hilliard and Adams-Bass (2016) proposed a Black History Knowledge Framework. This model is based in Black Liberation psychology, which itself is influenced by Frantz Fanon and Paolo Freire. In this model, collective history is more important than individual histories. They propose a model of Black History Knowledge (BHK) for Coping and Mental Health. African Americans experience a vulnerability based on displacement segregation, institutionalized oppression, deculturation, and destruction capital. BHK Black Liberation tasks are having an awareness of the structure of race and racism in the United States, contributions and achievements of African Americans, their capital positioning (social, political, economic), and cultural strengths that foster empowered action. Completing these tasks through gaining awareness positively impacts mental health. One can see how this plays out in the research on racial socialization. Research suggests its relationship with improved academic outcomes, higher self-esteem, and more prosocial behaviors. Black History is important to African Americans who observe and celebrate this holiday. What does all of this mean for community psychology?

Relationship with Community Psychology

One can find the relevance in Sarason’s discussion about the importance of knowing a setting’s prehistory (Sarason, 1972). This reminds me of another concept that we discuss in my class: Sankofa. This is the idea that one must know their history to seek guidance for action towards the future. It’s this idea of using history to drive future action that is part of the goal of Black History Month, but it is also a goal of community psychology. Think of the social climate from which community psychology was birthed. Imagine all the historic events that occurred during the 1960s that still impact us to this day. This period of social change and liberation is cited as a factor that influenced the emergence of community psychology. Common threads between these social movements and community psychology are that they sought to challenge hierarchical and unequal power relationships while linking local and national action (Kloos, Hill, Thomas, Wandersman, & Dalton, 2012).

Looking specifically at the Civil Rights Movement, the wins associated with it, such as integrated public spaces and gained equal voting rights, things we take for granted today. A better understanding of the Civil Rights Movement could provide insight into modern social movements such as Black Lives Matter. The Civil Rights Movement also influenced Black scholars such as Joseph White, who is considered the godfather of Black Psychology. In an article written for Ebony he advocated for a Black psychology specifically and more generally a multicultural psychology. Black Psychology as a field had a similar genesis as community psychology (White, 1970/1991). The Swampscott Conference in 1965 was where psychologists met to discuss training psychologists in the community mental health care system. They viewed themselves as atypical psychologists due to their community work which transformed their interests and skills. Black psychology as a field also emerged during this time. The Association of Black Psychologists was established in 1968, after a group of Black psychologists voiced their concerns at the APA convention that year. They wanted psychologists to conduct more culturally appropriate and relevant research on African Americans. To that point, psychology had been complicit in the scientific racism against African Americans. When their concerns went unheard, they created their organization. Today the organization continues to provide training and support to African American psychologists and students, while also advocating against racist and discriminatory practices within psychology and other areas. Both fields broke from traditional psychology during a period of significant social upheaval. Given the role that African Americans played during the Civil Rights Movement, within the field of psychology broadly, and Community Psychology and Black Psychology specifically, it is vital to recognize those accomplishments and contributions.

Black Contributions to Psychology and Society

African Americans have made a number of significant contributions to society and psychology. Considered the father of Psychology, Francis Sumner was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in psychology. Inez Beverly Prosser was the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in psychology. Mamie Clark and Kenneth Clark conducted the famous doll study that turned the tide in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case. W.E.B. DuBois conducted research in community settings, employed multiple forms of data collection, wrote in a manner that could be understood by non-academic audiences, and as an activist, was a founding member of the NAACP; this is something that we as community psychologists would view as our ideal and he did it half a century before our field existed. Stories like this illustrate how Black History is not just confined to one month out the year. Black people and Black scholarship do not exist only one month out of the year. Black history has shaped American history and psychology’s history. Too often, this type of information is left out of history books and curricula, leading to a single story serving as the dominant narrative. Black history matters because you must know all parts of your history to plan for a better future for all.


Chapman-Hilliard, C., & Adams-Bass, V. (2016). A conceptual framework for utilizing Black history knowledge as a path to psychological liberation for Black youth. Journal of Black Psychology42(6), 479-507.

Sarason, S. B. (1972). The creation of settings and the future societies. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Kloos, B., Hill, J., Thomas, E., Wandersman, A., Dalton, J.H. (2012). Community psychology: Linking individuals and communities (3rd ed.). Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

White, J. (1970/1991). Toward a Black Psychology, Ebony44, reprinted in Black Psychology (Reginald L. Jones ed., 1991).