THE MARK OF OPPRESSION – BY ELLIN CURLEY

In 1951, my father, Abram Kardiner, published a book with Lionel Ovesey, called “The Mark Of Oppression.” It tried to do what no one had ever done before using methodology that had never been used before. It examined the psycho-social effects of slavery and segregation on a sample group of 25 African-Americans living in Harlem, New York.

Dad and Ovesey used sophisticated psychological tools to get an accurate picture of the psyches of the subjects. They used therapy sessions, dream interpretation, Rorschach and TATs (Thematic Aptitude Tests). To analyze the family structure and child rearing practices, they used extensive professional interviews with trained professional observers spending extended periods in sample homes.

The book came up with psychological profiles and sociological analyses. It documented the damage that had been done to people who were treated by the rest of society as second-class citizens. The damage was deemed to be substantial. It was particularly critical in terms of the family structures and dynamics that evolved in the Black community. Namely, a predominance of poor, uneducated, single parent households, typically with mother as head-of-household. These less-than-optimal family and child rearing practices insured that the problems would be passed from generation to generation.

The book came out and was immediately politicized. It was a scholarly work, but because of the subject matter, it was picked up by lay people and by the press. The book was well received in the academic community but pilloried by both ends of the political spectrum – right and left.

Cover of paperback edition

The right was upset because the study seemed to prove that slavery and continued segregation did actual harm to actual individuals and communities. This was way before the civil rights act of 1965. So the segregationists still had serious political power. They did not want this sort of thing said out loud.

The more surprising attack came from the left. The liberals of the day were furious that African-Americans were being called ‘damaged’. They also hated that the blacks’ predominantly single parent, matriarchal households were being criticized. I think they were worried that if blacks were considered ‘different’ from whites in any way, that would get translated into ‘inferior’ and would justify politically inequality. The liberals wanted to propagate the myth that the black and white communities were identical in all ways.

My father was not a political animal. He did not do well with controversy, hostility or attacks on his work. He withdrew from the fray. The book didn’t go anywhere.

Jump ahead 65 years. The book just had a revival in, of all places, France. A French translation was just published in 2016 and is being read by French social scientists and psychologists. The book is relevant to the French today because there is a huge immigration problem in France. They are trying to assimilate many different cultures into the French mainstream and issues are arising. Immigrants are facing prejudice, hostility and discrimination from the native French population – very similar to what the blacks in America have experienced.

So Dad’s book finally has a chance to make a mark on the world. It will hopefully increase understanding about the negative effects our policies and social attitudes can have on a personal level. Maybe this will make at least some people more compassionate and accepting of others who are ‘different’. In today’s hate filled world, every little bit helps



Categories: Culture, Ellin Curley, Photography, Psychology

Tags: , , ,

13 replies

  1. This is well done, and crucial to understanding – whether we like the message or not.

    Like

    • Thank you for understanding the spirit in which this was written – and in which my father’s book was written. We need to understand the effects of what we do on actual people and institutions.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ellin, we’ve discussed your Dad’s book. I’m finishing up “The Golden Age of Boston Television”, penned by a veteran TV critic I know. It includes Boston’s volatile school desegregation era of the 70’s which I covered. The blowback from my coverage reminds me of some of the critcism received by your Dad. I knew I was doing something right. The beat goes on.

        Like

        • It is often said that you’re doing something right if you get criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. It didn’t feel that way when you were in the middle of a shitstorm of criticism.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. That was truly ground breaking research, Ellin and it still has significant relevance today.
    Leslie

    Liked by 1 person

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