When I trained as a therapist, I was very aware of the lack of representation of any therapists who were black or people of colour. This absence created a vacuum where I questioned my value and if there would ever be room for me to be fully part of the profession. So, when I recently heard about the work of Marie Battle Singer, an influential, successful but largely forgotten black psychoanalyst, I was left questioning what it is within our profession that discounts the memory, the work and even the existence of certain therapists. Singer’s groundbreaking work remains in the shadows, despite her close association with Anna Freud.
Born in the US in 1910, Singer’s place as Britain’s first black psychoanalyst has only been recently acknowledged, thanks to the efforts of her niece and biographer, Jane Rhodes, a professor of black studies at the University of Illinois Chicago. Despite her significant contributions to the field, Singer was unknown to many until recently. As Eugene Ellis, founder of the Black, African and Asian Therapy Network (BAATN) says, ‘I was not aware of her important work throughout my training and was only made aware when Jane Rhodes came to the UK and offered to do a presentation at BAATN.’
Singer, who was trained as a social worker, fled from Mississippi after years of experiencing racism and discrimination. Faced with the lack of opportunity, she took her chances by coming to post-war Britain in 1948, when she was in her 30s. Her education to master’s level helped her to navigate the deeply embedded racism within institutions in the UK. She was accepted to train at the Anna Freud Centre where she developed many innovative ways of working with families, and worked closely with Anna Freud throughout her professional career. She practised psychoanalytic work with families in hospitals in London and Cambridge, as well as running her own busy and successful practice in Harley Street.
Singer died on 27 May 1985, a few years before I began my first training. Had I known about her then, I am sure I would have felt less isolated and more represented within the profession. This lack of recognition and celebration of black practitioners misleads us into thinking significant contributions have not been made, or continue not to be made, by black therapists. We need to be active in holding awareness and gratitude for these important pioneers to enable the field to be representative of and fitting for all members.
Marie Battle Singer
Lennox K Thomas
Black therapists have impacted and continue to impact therapeutic thinking across the field in centring blackness and developing black professional excellence. I was inspired to reflect on the black therapists who have impacted me and influenced my development as a therapist by the death of Lennox K Thomas last year. I felt his loss deeply, as his writing was hugely important to me both personally and professionally. My experience of Thomas was of his warmth and sharp, straightforward and direct love for truth. When I had time with him, I often felt as if I was being invited to sit at the fire and be in dialogue with an old friend. I remember when I met him, the first thing he wanted to know was where I and my parents were from. He took interest in my history, as he knew this formed the basis of how I held myself and others in my practice.
Thomas was born in Grenada and came to London aged seven, an experience that profoundly shaped his sense of the loss of home. He qualified as a social worker and later trained in family therapy and psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Deeply interested in race and culture and how therapy replicated the dynamics of power, particularly related to race, he was one of the first people to challenge what was not mentioned, and to talk about his Caribbean heritage and how this was important to the work. By creating a model, a way of thinking about black people and people of colour that did not assume that ‘we are all the same’, he named the structures of society and oppression as central themes to explore. This was groundbreaking for me as a therapist as I often felt these dynamics at play, but could not find the words to work with them. Thomas not only found the words but spoke them for many who had no voice, legitimising their challenging and traumatising experiences.
In my world, he was the first person talking about these issues, challenging systems, and raising consciousness, particularly around the racist bias towards black children. Thomas was also a powerful teacher and mentor, contributing to theory and sensitively addressing the historical effects of colonisation, racism and other oppressions of black, Asian and immigrant populations. Thomas joined Nafsiyat Intercultural Therapy Centre in 1982, going on to become Clinical Director in 1992. Later, he became a co-director of the MSc in intercultural psychotherapy at University College London, and was a co-founder and consultant psychotherapist at the Refugee Therapy Centre. In 2009, Thomas was awarded an honorary fellowship by UKCP, which recognised his substantial and outstanding contribution to the profession of psychotherapy. His theoretical approach to working with children and families continues to be central to my therapeutic work.
Barbara Fletchman Smith
Making sense of history
As a black therapist, an important part of my journey has been in making sense of my own history, and Barbara Fletchman Smith’s work1,2 has been instrumental in helping me piece together the personal impact of racial and intergenerational trauma. Like Singer and Thomas, Smith trained as a social worker before becoming a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. Through her writing about race, she raised awareness about the impact of slavery, a topic that many have resisted engaging with.
I came across her books as a qualified therapist when looking for writing related to loss connected with transracial and inter-country adoption and adult experiences of immigration. Smith helpfully contextualises intergeneration patterns in the Caribbean community, providing meaning-making of stereotypical behaviours linked to traumatic re-enactments that needed attending to and comprehending, rather than subjecting to racialisation and stigmatisation. Her writing provided me with an important lens through which to more clearly perceive myself and understand community trauma.
Dr Elaine Arnold, founder of Supporting Relationships and Families (SRF), says, ‘As a psychoanalytic therapist, her significant contributions came in the form of her two groundbreaking books examining the psychological effects on Afro-Caribbean people and the intergenerational transmission of trauma from slavery across generations.’
Attachment through an Afro-Caribbean lens
Arnold herself is one of my inspirational figures. Born in Trinidad, she also trained as a social worker and came to London in the late 1950s to complete her postgraduate studies. She became interested in attachment in Afro-Caribbean and African communities, especially the phenomenon of broken attachments and traumatic reunions, through her reading of the work of John Bowlby. Arnold named the painful significance of intergenerational trauma when working with black people, a crucial factor that seemed to have been hiding in plain sight. Arnold’s gift was in communicating these ideas in a relatable and accessible way, helping people to integrate these principles into their work.
Arnold’s warm and deeply empathic approach meant these ideas could be accessed within communities most in need, which enabled them to make sense of their experiences and reduce their sense of isolation. She went on to become Director of Training at Nafsiyat, where she continued her research into the adverse effects of separation and loss. Her role at Nafsiyat was to attract social workers and to train them in attachment within the cultural context. This work extended to child psychotherapists and helped the wider profession understand the particular attachment needs of black and people of colour.3 Her influence is key in the work I do with transracial and inter-country adoption children and families. She helped me to hold adult adoptees with their profound sense of displacement as they processed their complex experiences. Although past retirement age, she continues to work tirelessly, providing important workshops and lectures on attachment. Although I have never had the opportunity to work with her, I have appreciated the opportunity to benefit from her knowledge over the years through talks and trainings.
Black issues in therapy and racism
I met Dr Isha Mckenzie-Mavinga early in my career when she was doing work with survivors of domestic abuse. It was by chance that Mckenzie-Mavinga was looking for someone to assist her with groupwork, and I volunteered my services. The rest, as they say, is history. I had a crash course in working with trauma with a supportive mentor showing me how to incorporate social and political context into my work.
Mckenzie-Mavinga is a writer and poet as well as an integrative transcultural psychotherapist. She recently started the process of retirement after many years of lecturing, training and supervising, leaving a lasting legacy for us as a profession. Mckenzie-Mavinga published several papers from her doctoral study, ‘Black issues in counsellor training and practice’. She went on to publish two more books on related topics – Black Issues in the Therapeutic Process4 and The Challenge of Racism in Therapeutic Practice: engaging with oppression in practice and supervision.5 Both books have been important to me in teaching about intersectionality and racism on therapy trainings and providing me with a strong theoretical model to use to name racialised experience.
Mckenzie-Mavinga has identified several important concepts to contextualise racialised experience, such as recognition trauma, the process of emerging from being silenced about racism, and the black empathic approach, the process of understanding and paying attention to emotions and trauma induced by racism. Mckenzie-Mavinga speaks powerfully to the black-white divide and articulates the recurring enactments that need to be addressed on an ongoing basis. I am passionate about providing access to these concepts to help others understand these dynamics, creating space for less harmful traumatisation in training and clinical practice. Mckenzie-Mavinga’s passion in enabling people of colour to find their voice after being gagged by racialised processes is enormously freeing and results in all her courses being consistently oversubscribed. Her approach facilitates dialogue and exploration of oppression, internalised oppression, stereotyping and power relationships. Her work has supported me in my practice in developing groupwork and deepening my thinking about racial trauma. It has provided a foundation for me to step into leadership in addressing institutional racism and creating cultural change in organisations.
Next in this issue
Agents of change
This tribute ends with Aileen Alleyne, a key influence during my training as a group analyst, and also my supervisor. Alleyne first trained as a psychiatric and general nurse before becoming a psychodynamic psychotherapist. She was interested in the issues associated with race in the workplace, what processes played out between people and how black people dealt with the impact of these interactions. Alleyne’s thinking about patterns of racialised dynamics led her to develop her work on the internal oppressor, the internalised script within black people that carries intergenerational baggage and scars that can act as an inner tyrant. These internalised messages of oppression become reawakened when experiencing the white other. Alleyne has helped many individuals to look at this enemy within to address the re-wounding of self and identity. This was an important part of my process of working out what was my own inner tyrant and what was structural racism, and how the two interacted. Alleyne continues to contribute to deepening the understanding and development of black issues in therapy by offering trainings on shame, race, identity wounding and transgenerational and intergenerational trauma.
I know how important it has been to me to have black therapists as part of my journey, to interrogate and make sense of the intercultural work I have done over the years. It has also been important in becoming clear about my own identity, both as a black woman of Caribbean descent and as a black therapist. I am aware that I have just scratched the surface here, as there are many more therapists of colour who have made significant contributions to our understanding, but sadly many remain unknown and currently lost to history. But the image I hold as I write this article is that of an ever-expanding mosaic pattern, in which black and people of colour continue to contribute to the therapy field and enrich the community over time with their contributions. This mosaic is ever growing and developing, with black therapists adding to and enhancing clinical practice. I have been inspired and continue to be shaped by the amazing contribution from many black therapists and feel richer for all their wisdom.
1. Smith BF. Mental slavery: psychoanalytic studies of Caribbean people. London: Karnac Books; 2000.
2. Smith BF. Transcending the legacies of slavery: a psychoanalytic view. London: Karnac Books; 2011.
3. Arnold E. Working with families of African Caribbean origin: understanding issues around immigration and attachment. London: Jessica Kingsley; 2012.
4. Mckenzie-Mavinga I. Black issues in the therapeutic process. London: Palgrave Macmillan; 2009.
5. Mckenzie-Mavinga I. The challenge of racism in therapeutic practice: engaging with oppression in practice and supervision. London: Palgrave Macmillan; 2016.