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Alvin Poussaint: Upbeat About the Black Psyche

June 24, 1988|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

The accusation came just as the press conference at the Hollywood Roosevelt was winding down.

"My God, you're talking optimism!" a man blurted out, half in jest, to black psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint of Harvard Medical School.

The awardees of the 1988 Medgar Evers Community Service Awards of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP had been introduced to a roomful of journalists, almost all of them black, and the majority of the questions had gone to Poussaint, the medal of honor recipient.

He was to speak at the luncheon that would follow on "the state of the psyche of black America" and his responses to the many questions about the impact of the Jesse Jackson campaign on that psyche had been positive:

"I think it's had an incredible impact, carrying the black psyche up to a much higher level. . . . It's important to go for it, even when the odds are stacked against it. They're always telling him it's not the right time. It wasn't the right time for Martin Luther King either. . . . (Jackson) did it. He made it work. He proved the polls wrong, the analysts wrong. He has made significant inroads as a candidate into white America."

Poussaint went on to talk about the psyche of white America. A script consultant to "The Cosby Show," he reminded the group that early marketing polls had doomed the show before it started by concluding that white America wouldn't go for it--"it" went on to become the No. 1 show in the country. And now the polls had been wrong about whites and Jackson--one-third of those who voted for him were white.

"We don't know what they've been thinking. Those TV shows have been changing the white psyche," he said, thus bringing on the exclamation about optimism.

Fighting Words

Those could be fighting words in today's cynical world--right up there with naivete, or even ignorance.

"I don't know if optimism is quite the right word," Poussaint said later in the day, relaxing in his suite after the luncheon.

"I believe in movement. You can make things happen," he said, repeating Jackson's success as a case in point--"damned impressive with the baggage he has to carry around."

He called what has been happening a "crack in the armor" of white Americans who are not as rigidly wedded to the stereotypes of the past:

"They're ready to be more open, not to shut out. They didn't flip out when Vanessa Williams won Miss America, and they didn't flip out when she went down, saying 'all black people are corrupt.' (Their response) was more like, 'that's sad.'

Despite the fact blacks are still far behind, he said, there is now "probably triple the talent" and resources there was 25 years ago: "Just look at the people the Ivy League alone is turning out."

White Americans, he added, are becoming used to seeing black middle-class people and accept blacks as heroes, thanks largely to their success in sports and music.

"Look how respected William Gray (the black Democratic congressman from Philadelphia who heads the budget committee) is. There has been a dramatic change in the way whites think about the ability of blacks to govern and run things. It's due to the black mayors. Twenty years ago they would flee the city. . . . Now there are black school superintendents, police chiefs. It's changed the public image."

There are even inroads in the white male bastion of corporate America, he said, at least among progressive companies.

"Within corporations, a lot of blacks are organizing and some corporations encourage it. They see it as a way to deal with problems and issues, not as a threat."

If Poussaint was speaking positively, it was not because a quick flash came to him through rose-colored glasses. The author of "Why Blacks Kill Blacks" knows well and personally the incredibly long hard road on which any forward movement has happened. A Harlem boyhood behind him, he may have had degrees and titles from Columbia, Cornell and UCLA by the time he served as Southern field director of the Medical Committee for Human Rights in Jackson, Miss. during the height of the civil rights movement, but his status served only to inflame a confrontation with a local cop in 1965.

" 'What's your name,' " Poussaint recalled being asked.

" 'Dr. Poussaint.' "

" 'No, I want your first name, boy,' " Poussaint said, smiling faintly.

When he says, "I think here has been overall forward movement," it is an observation he roots in history, starting with an explanation of the psychologically and physically brutalizing effects of slavery and segregation on black people and their psyches. The early movement forward was just to get the basics of human dignity--the seat on the bus or lunch counter, the access to schools--"at least legally." Next he said, in the late '60s, it was the emergence of the black consciousness movement--black power and black pride, ridding black people of the negative feelings of being black.

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