Freud’s Negro — Claudia Tate

Freud’s Negro — Claudia Tate


ChickenBones: A Journal

for  Literary & Artistic African-American  Themes



My aim . . . is not to brand Freud a racist and then dismiss psychoanalysis

as irredeemably racist because its inventor was. . . . I want . . . to reveal

that the position of both the theory and the practice of psychoanalysis today



Books by Claudia Tate


Domestic Allegories of Political Desire / Black Women Writers at Work Dark Princess / The Selected Works of Georgia Douglass Johnson


The Works of Katherine Tillman


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Freud and His “Negro”: Psychoanalysis

 as Ally and Enemy of African Americans

By Claudia Tate


Who Practices Psychoanalysis?

[T] he practitioners of psychoanalysis are almost categorically all white, and its analytical models disregard the effects of racial differences on the lived experiences of the analysts and analysands. . . . African American scholars have been so hesitant in embracing psychoanalysis. For once African Americans recognize that psychoanalysis always seems to boil down to sexual matters to the exclusion of race matters, psychoanalysis appears to ally itself as much or more with the forces of white privilege than with those of racial equality.

Freud’s Racism and Tate’s Intent

My aim . . . is not to brand Freud a racist and then dismiss psychoanalysis as irredeemably racist because its inventor was. . . . I want . . . to reveal that the position of both the theory and the practice of psychoanalysis today is still tainted by the racism in which psychoanalysis originated and that we must acknowledge and try to alter this positioning . . . . I want my exploration of Freud’s joke . . . to demonstrate some of the potential that psychoanalysis holds for undermining racism.

Freud’s Negro Joke 

In the Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1957), Ernest Jones, Freud’s eminent biographer, reports that in 1924 Freud rejuvenated an “old joke” by referring to an American patient as “his negro” (Vol. 3, 105). Jones explains that Freud’s use of this “strange appellation” dated back to 1886. . . .For when the joke leaked into the public domain and materialized also in 1886 as “a cartoon in the Fliegende Blatter depicting a yawning lion muttering ‘Twelve o’clock and no negro’,” Freud identified with the lion and produced a new rendition of the joke by conflating it with the cartoon (Vol. 1, 151). . . .The old joke must have delighted Freud because, as Jones reports, Freud told variations of it to those in his inner circle for several decades.

Replicating the Master/Slave Relationship

Freud [by identifying himself with the lion] has established (however unconsciously) an equation between the analyst/patient relationship and the most brutal form of the master / slave relationship, in which the slave is only a piece of meat to satisfy the master’s ravenous appetite (for power, money, sex, aggression, or whatever). Freud’s joke thus reveals an imbalance of power intrinsic to the analytic relationship that in many ways puts the patient at the mercy of the analyst, just as the slave is at the mercy of the master.

Racial Compensation

Freud’s joke also reveals Freud’s own racial anxiety, an anxiety that . . . played a significant role in the way Freud and other Jewish analysts tried to position themselves and their practice in relation to gentile society. Freud’s own racism . . .can be seen as partly a defense against his own Jewish identity. . . .[It] functions to allay his anxiety about the reception of psychoanalysis and the social alienation associated with his Jewish identity in anti-Semitic Austria of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Freud’s Discursive Blackface & Derisive Blackness

[The] joke’s ironic performance of blackness allows Freud to stage his own white masculinity in the guise of the colonial master. . . . [It] reveals the racial trauma that psychoanalysis originally sought to master Freud’s compulsive repetition of the joke suggests that for him psychoanalysis failed to acheive a permanent mastery of his feelings of social alienation.

Psychoanalysis and Privilege: Bedfellows

By allying itself with social privilege, psychoanalysis confined itself to the private realm of the white bourgeois family. under these conditions, whiteness effaced the racial difference of Jewishness, but only if the social borders were marked by ostracized blacks. This confinement repressed the “primal scene” of the larger culture and its racial castration.”

[Descendants of  European Jews in America] forget that they were once “black” in Europe. Like the assimilated Jewish Americans, the practice of psychoanalysis reinforces its position in dominant US culture by forgetting that it was born of racial conflict and, moreover that many of the psychological conflicts of its patients also have roots in racial conflict.

Blackness & Feminine Deficiency

When the figurative blackness of Freud’s “negro’ patients proved insufficient to subdue his anxiety over anti-Semitism, he turned to another displacement by constructing the lack for “woman” based on her missing penis and described her essence as impenetrable as the “dark continent”–Africa (Freud, “The Question of Lay Analysis” 212).

How Black Is Black?

Freud’s joke reconstitutes the polarized economy of power between Jewish therapy and ailment by transforming this relationship into a tripartite one of relative social privilege among whites, Jews, and Negroes before collapsing the triangular formulation into the simple polarity of white and black. this reconstitution has the effect of whitening the metaphorical blackness of Jewishness in direct proportion to the prominence of actual black bodies. Suc prominence erases the Semitic blackness presumed by Aryans because Jews under these circumstances become absorbed into the category of whiteness.

Symbolic Blackness, American Art & White Supremacy

Blackface was also linked to the major twentieth-century cinematic events of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903), Birth of a Nation (1915), and The Jazz Singer (1927).

Indeed, Freud’s “old joke” deals with racial anxiety in much the same way as The Jazz Singer does: both exploit the ontological blackness of African Americans to erase the figurative blackness of the Jewish body. . . . Jack’s choice to sing jazz under the name of Jack Robin literally kills his Jewish father–a personification of Old World customs and, thus, Semitic blackness–and opens a space for himself as a white American son. . . .

In his performance of blackface, Jolson actually performs whiteness, masked as blackness. . . . blackface bolstered the sense of racial privilege of both the white performers and the white working-class audience by making their social difference the object of common-sense whiteness instead of other more discriminating signs. Early black minstrelsy, then, was a discourse of whiteness.

Psychoanalysis: the White Man’s Game of Superiority

Psychoanalysis has functioned to affirm white, masculine heterosexuality as the pinnacle of civilized culture at a time when peoples of European origin first recognize themselves as a minority in the global population, when Western women are more effectively demanding political agency, and when other forms of socialization and family formation appear to subvert the naturalness of the nuclear family. When these historical factors become prominent, psychoanalysis appears as a discourse about “a crisis in the male imperial identity”, in which race disappears and sex looms everywhere.

The Utility of Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis can also help us to analyze the racist roots of many cultural phenomenon like Freud’s joke. Perhaps we can appropriate the tools of psychoanalysis and use them in ways that its creators and early practitioners never imagined.

Source: Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture & Society, Volume 1, Number 1, Spring 1996, pp.  53-62.

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update 19 December 2011




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Related files: Freud and the Negro  Professor Claudia Tate

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