The African American Personality

Total Views : 46
Zoom In Zoom Out Read Later Print

This paper pointed out what other observers have said about the generic African American personality. The author injected some of his cogitations on the nature of fear and love. His view is that racism is caused by fear and lack of love and that the cure for it is love.

The African American Personality


Ozodi Thomas Osuji


        Many books have been written on African-American personality, such as Gunner Myrdal, An American Dilemma; Kardinar and Ovesey, The Mark Of Oppression; Karon, the Negro Personality; Pettigrew, A Profile of the Negro American; Franklin Frazier, The Black Bourgeoisie; Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Mask; Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized; Octave Mannoni, Prospero and Caliban, the Psychology of Colonization; Stanley Elkins Slavery and Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice. Each of these books treated African Americans as a generic group and talked about them as if they are an individual with a personality. Of course that cannot be true since each of us has a different personality. Nevertheless, they have a point in the sense that people from a group who shared the same experience tend to develop a certain type of behavior patterns, especially those that enable them to cope with their situation.

         Each of those books was written from a certain psychological perspective; a psychological perspective is a methodological approach to understanding people and sees people from its framework; the framework colors how the observer sees people and what he sees is not necessarily true.  For example, some of the frame of reference of the psychologists who wrote on black Americans is psychoanalytic and they looked at them from that reference point and as we all know psychoanalysis is not yet a science; none of its conclusions have been demonstrated to be empirically true; thus, the conclusions based on them are not necessarily true. 

       The same goes for conclusions based on social psychology for those are also not necessarily true. Psychology is not yet a science; even neuroscience that struggles mightily to base its conclusions on the functioning of the human nervous system, especially the brain is not a science for whereas our studies of neurons can tell us how information is transmitted from one synapse to another it does not tell us about thinking itself. 

       Human beings remain a mystery even unto themselves; therefore, making sweeping generalizations about them is not particularly helpful.  That been said it is interesting to see how some psychologists of yesteryears saw African Americans.

       In the Mark of Oppression the two psychoanalysts, Kardinar and Oversay, employed psychoanalytic categories to describe how they see the Negro American behaving. The point they set out to make is that oppression, that is, racism, had left some behavior characteristics in the Negro American. Racism is terrorism...the KKK is a terrorist group. Racist terrorists employ the methods of terrorists to arouse fear in people so as to intimidate them and thus prevent them from doing what they want to do and instead do what the terrorist wants them to do, in this instance prevent black folks from expressing their political rights in America, subdue them and make them behave like fearful slaves who obeyed the white man.  Kardinar and Oversay said that racism has generated certain behavior patterns in the Negro American.

       In their view the Negro tends to be a very fearful person; he tends to behave like a child who desires acceptance from others (in this case from white men) and does most things to please them so that they would approve him. The Negro is always smiling (laughing from cheek to cheek) and acting as if he has no worry in the world.  He behaves as a clown because he sensed that his racist masters want him to behave as such and if he behaved like a man with his own mind and thoughts and made demands for respect he would be attacked. The Negro, in Stanley Elkins words, behaves like Sambo, the eternal clownish person.

      In Black Skin-White Mask, Franz Fanon, himself a black person building on his own experience talked about Negroes relationships with white folks. As he saw it, Negroes are ashamed of their color and everything represented by blackness (Kenneth Clark presented apparent social psychological evidence that seem to buttress this contention, his studies of black children preferring white dolls, at the Brown Versus Topeka, Kansas Board of Education Supreme Court case in 1954). Their history of slavery had given them the impression that blackness is equated with backwardness, with nothing good in life.

       Racists claim that black folks have achieved nothing significant in physics, chemistry and biology and technology and did not have an outstanding civilization. Thus, the Negro internalized the belief that his people are useless and is ashamed of them and his self. Since he associates everything good with white folks, as racist civilization told him to do, he wants to be white like. He pretends to be white like and compulsively seeks to be around white folks.

       As Gordon Allport pointed in The Nature of Prejudice, many Negroes believe that proximity to white folks would make them seem good and civilized. Alas, no matter what the Negro does white folks still see him as nigger. 

       Fanon paid particular attention to some Negroes fascination with white women. He says, in effect, that having sex with white women is like attaining that which is valued and kind of makes such negroes feel important, as important as they imagine white folks are.  Of course, soon they realize that women are women regardless of their color and continue seeking their neurotic quest for importance elsewhere.


         I could do literature review on how others see black Americans or I could simply say how I see them. I choose to say how I see them and leave it at that. My perception is not the truth. What is the truth, anyway, do you know?

      Africans were subjected to the dehumanizing experience of slavery.  They were degraded and humiliated in every which way is imaginable by their white masters. Apparently, their white masters had a need to degrade black folks and did a good job of it. 

       We know that generally speaking human beings doubt their worth; they are animals with minds. If they look at their animal bodies they know that their fate is the same as the fate of dogs and other animals. Animals live and die and their bodies decay and smell worse than feces. Dead human bodies smell worse than feces.  Therefore, if all people are are the human body, animal stuff then they are like animals; they are lacking in natural worth. They are existentially nothing important. 

       On the other hand, human beings have minds that can study and understand how the universe works. That ought to count for something important, doesn’t it?  Appraising the human mind we are tempted to see human beings as godlike. By godlike we mean that which has eternity and magnificence. 

       Human self-appraisal hovers between worth and worthlessness. This is the case of all human beings.


         If you consciously treat people as worthwhile you reinforce the aspect of them that wants to see them as worthwhile and important; on the other hand, if you consciously treat people as if they have no worth you affirm the aspect of them that sees itself as like animals, as nothing special.

       Racism consciously treated black folks as worthless animals thus reinforcing the part of them that suspects they are nothing.

       As rational parents know, they have to love and respect their children and treat them as important if they want them to grow up feeling important; parents know that if they treat their children as unimportant that they tend to grow up feeling unimportant.

       White folks consciously treated black folks as if they are unimportant. They therefore validated the aspect of people that suspect that they are unimportant.


        Those who were for five hundred years (from 1500-2000) treated as if they are not important must necessarily internalize the view that they are not important and behave as such. If they were treated as important they would, on the other hand, act as if they are important, as children from loving and respectful families do. 

       African Americans had experiences that reduced their humanity to nothingness and they tend to suspect that they are nothing important.  Deep down in their psyche, African Americans tend to act as if they are unimportant.

         (Psychoanalytically speaking, it can be said that I see myself as unimportant and project my sense of unimportance to African Americans; this is true; there is no denial involved here; we understand people, by the way, through projective identification.)

       In my experience most of the African Americans I see tend to behave as if they have no worth. This does not mean that they know it at the conscious level or accept their worthlessness.

        If an authority figure, such as parents and teachers, told a child that he has no worth he would do two things; one, he would believe him and two he would reject his assessment of him.

       White folks told black folks that they have no worth; one, black folks believe it; two, black folks fight that negative assessment of them.

        Thus, African Americans tend to have ambivalent attitude towards their worth. They are not sure that they have worth. Overtly they act as if they have worth but covertly they act as if they do not have worth. 

        This doubt about their worth manifests itself in their tendency to see other black folks as lacking worth and easily attack and kill them.  Black men easily kill other black men. You find two black men talking as friends, as “my brother” and then one of them does something that makes the other angry and he lapses to calling him a nigger and attacks him with amazing fury and if he has a gun he would kill him just like that.

        If you are a black man and you are walking down the street and brushed unto another black man or woman he or she would react to you with such violence that you wonder where all that anger came from; in fact, they are known to kill each other from such brushes. It is as if you treated him as if he has no worth; a nigger has treated him as a nigger and he has to show you that you are the nigger and that he is not a nigger; so he yells at you, attacks you or even kills you.

        In such instances the best thing you can do to protect your life is to be quiet and not talk back when the irate black man starts yelling at you; you should not ignore him though; he fears being ignored for that means that he is nothing; you should show him that you respect him. Treat him respectfully and he would calm down. His anger is probably due to his perception that you and folks do not respect him so respect him and he would pipe down. 

      In my  perception, Negros see white folks as important and see black folks as unimportant, as nothing; this applies even in situations where black folk gather and talk about how they value their blackness (such as in the black Panther Party).


         The white man consciously and deliberately set out to tell the black man that he is nothing. He told him that he is not intelligent. He told him that he came from a primitive people, a people who did not mount any kind of civilization of worth; that all Africans did was run around in the jungle naked  and killing each other.

          African Americans react to this put down in different ways. They all internalized that view. Some African Americans, especially middle class ones who see themselves as conservative (what are they conserving) and members of the Republican Party do not want anything to do with Africans. In their view, Africans are primitive and uncivilized and they do not want anything to do with Africans.  Moreover, Africans sold them to white folks so why should they care for those who sold them? Forget them and do what you have to do to survive in the present.

       These folks anger at Africans is legitimate; Africans must acknowledge their part in selling their brothers to white men and to Arabs and quit the infantile rationalization that other people made them do it; other people made you sell your brothers and sisters? Why didn’t you prefer death to selling your people to foreigners?

        Africans must apologize to those they sold and make financial amends before their relationships with African Americans is healed.

        On the other hand, some African Americans react to the racial put down, to the accusation that black folks have no civilization of note by claiming that Africans started the first great civilization of mankind, Egypt.  Cheikh Anta Diop, Chancellor Williams and others make this claim.

       Of course Egypt was an African civilization; what else could it be, is it not in Africa and who lives in Africa but Africans (the current light skinned Arabs who now live in North Africa came there in the eight century when Arabs under the impulse of Islam became conquerors and swept to North Africa, Spain and southern France and indeed went as far as India and China. 

       The relevant point here is not whether Egypt is African or not, it is, but that Negros who feel that they have been insulted by the white man’s put downs obsessively claim Egypt as their civilization. They generally do not stop there: they now claim to be responsible for just about everything that human beings have ever achieved; they even claim to have come to the Americas before Columbus and were responsible for the Aztec civilization and built the pyramids in Central America just as they built the Pyramids in Egypt. (And that may well be correct; I do not know and I do not feel motivated to prove such claims.)

       There is a middle ground, another group of African Americans, those that are neither ashamed of Africa nor motivated to prove that everything has an African origin. This third group simply accepts all human beings as the same and do not have a need to put one race up and another down; they do not need to make someone feel inferior to make themselves feel superior; they know that all races have contributed something important to civilization. In fact they are very uncomfortable with the term race; they would rather talk about all human beings as the same and coequal. These folks want to relate to all people as brothers and sisters regardless of their race.  Yet they understand what white folks did to belittle black folks and understand the responses of those who are ashamed of Africa and those who extol Africa. Many black folks actually fall in this middle camp.




         One of the lessons that I have learned about human beings is that they are either acting from fear or from love.  Each person has a self, an ego housed in body. He perceives environmental forces arrayed against him. He knows that at any moment the environment could snuff out his life. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanos, floods, tornadoes, draughts, plagues, bacteria, virus, fungi and any number of natural forces could destroy his life at any moment. He has no guarantee that he is going to live in the next minute. And above all he knows that all human beings have the capacity to destroy his life. If the next guy wants to he has the means to kill him as he has the capacity to kill him. Our lives are in each other’s hands and in nature’s hands.

       Given our precarious and vulnerable existence, we struggle to gain mastery over nature and other people so as to reduce their capacity to destroy us; alas, in the end we shall succumb to death, die and our bodies dissolve to the elements that make them up...nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and trace elements like zinc, iron, potassium, potassium, copper, magnesium etc. Those elements in turn would decay to the particles that make them up...electrons, protons and neutrons. The particles in turn would decay to quarks and ultimately all of them to photons (photons decay to the nothingness from which they came during the extreme heat of the big bang that produced them). 

       Our bodies came from nothing and return to nothing.  We are all aware of how fragile our bodies are.  We want to live in bodies, if possible forever. 

       We developed fear and fear alerts us to danger to what could destroy our bodies and urges us to take protective measures (such as flee from it or fight it and remove it). We all live in fear.  Fear is a means of protecting our physical lives.

       Without the fear mechanism that alerts us to danger we cannot live for a day in bodies. Without fear there is no life in body.  Body and fear are synonymous.


          We all respond with fear to our world. We all are fearful animals. If in doubt look at human civilization and see what it is all about: it is an effort to protect the body and reduce dangers to it. Houses, clothes, food, medications are efforts to protect our bodies.  Human civilization is nothing but our efforts to protect our bodies.

       We live in fear. We fear other people, especially those who do not look like us, strangers. Those who look like us we believe can protect us but those who seem different we believe can endanger our lives, kill us. 

        White folks feel comfortable around white folks and black folks feel comfortable around black folks; they both fear each other for they see themselves as outsiders to each other.

        White folks live in fear. Much of the harm they have done to black folks is rooted in their fear of black folks and their desire to use black folks as labor to procure what makes their lives pleasant. Having used blacks as mules to produce food they naturally feel that they did something wrong to black folk. They expect black folk to attack and harm or kill them. White folks have deep rooted fear of black folks.

        Given their history of enslaving black folks their fear of black folk is realistic for those harmed tend to feel angry and may react with anger and destructive behaviors towards those who harmed them (white America would never outlaw guns for they must carry their guns to protect themselves from all the people they screwed).  The salient point is that white folks for a variety of reasons live in fear.

       Black folks also live in fear. As human beings black folk are aware of the dangers that confront them everywhere they look and fear for their lives.  They too devote their lives to struggling to overcome danger to their lives.


        To be a human being is to live in fear. As long as people live in bodies, bodies that can be harmed at any moment and bodies that would eventually die they must live in fear.

        The only way to overcome fear or at least reduce it is to assume that life transcends our bodies and that when we die that we live in other forms of living. Generally, religion gives people hope in life after death hence reduce their existential fears.

         Science increases our fears by pointing out all the dangers from the environment and telling people that they are mere animals that live and die and  that all they can do is struggle to live for as long as is possible in body and then die and disappear into oblivion. Science does not reduce fear, it exacerbates it.

      Those who accept that life continues after they die and  if they manage to see life after death as loving tend to act lovingly while here on earth.

       In my experience, the opposite of fear is love (this is also the testimony of Helen Schucman in her book, A Course in miracles). A person is either fearful or he is loving but not both. If you see a fearful person you see a person who does not know love and does not love people; if you see a loving person you see a person who has reduced his fear and loves himself and loves all people. One either loves or one is fearful.

        Contemporary human beings are mostly fearful (for they identify with their bodies and egos and know that those are threatened hence are afraid of what could harm them). Only a few persons are fearless.

        The fearless always identify with love; they see their real selves as eternal and as spirit that lives after they die.  Fearless persons tend to be loving persons. 

       The only way to reduce and even eliminate fear is to become a loving person.  I believe that we have a real self, a spirit self that is all love; I believe that that real self is having a physical experience and in body feels fear. Our true self is love in spirit but we opted to live as its opposite, and the opposite of love is lovelessness. Our lives on earth are loveless. Lovelessness is the same as insecurity and fear.

       I believe that the solution for black folks is for them to turn towards love and love themselves and love all people. 

      Love entails forgiving the wrongs other people did to you in the past and correcting your and their mistakes in the present (love does not condone present evil).

       Love means forgiving Africans for selling African Americans and forgiving white folks for buying and abusing African Americans and in the present making sure that we all love one another and don’t abuse any one.

       Love is the opposite of fear. When black folks accept only love and love all including those who harmed them in the past they develop healthy personalities.

        At present many black folk tend to have fearful personalities (what our psychoanalytic friends call neurotic personalities and what contemporary psychiatrists call personality disorders...I choose not to employ psychiatric terms in this paper; I am not in the business of pathologizing folks behaviors).

         Many black folks have anxiety due to the trauma they experienced in a racist society (many of them actually could be said to have post-traumatic stress disorder from the abuses of racism). Their fear is understandable for they live in an environment that threatens their lives. Make a wrong move and a white police man arrests you or kills you; you are jailed for frivolous issues etc.




       African Americans are like any other group of human beings; each of them is an individual with his unique personality structure as are all other human beings.  The incidence of psychopathology does not seem to be different in them than is seen in other human groups. Some of them are schizophrenic, bipolar affectively disordered, depressed, deluded; some of them have anxiety disorders; some of them have the various personality disorders (paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, narcissistic, histrionic, borderline, anti-social, avoidant, obsessive compulsive and dependent); in short you find in them what you find in other human beings; like other people most of them are normal personalities and a small percentage of them have personality issues. 

        However, there is no denying that they had a horrific experience whereby their dignity was consciously denied; they were degraded and humiliated and everything that human beings respect about themselves was denied them. That recent slave experience and on-going history of discrimination has left a generalized impact on their personalities.  However, one must be very careful in calling the behaviors adapted to an abusive situation pathological for it is the abuse itself that is pathological.

       According to Erik Erikson if you love children they tend to develop trust in those who love them and generalize that trust to other people. Now what happens when all a people knew is abuse and lack of caring? Obviously they are not going to trust their environment for it would be foolish to do so.  Thus, it is not a surprise that you find an element of suspiciousness, distrusting and on guard behaviors in many African Americans; we could call such behavior socially functional paranoia for it makes sense for them to suspect that the police man is going to harass them and that folks would keep an eye on them when they walk into a store etc.  I am saying that we see traits of behaviors that ordinarily folks could consider pathological but given the hostile environment these people are responding to we must hesitate calling such behaviors maladaptive. 

       One particular aspect of their behaviors that is problematic is their tendency to violence.  We are not talking about violence against white folks, their oppressors but violence against their own people, their fellow oppressed people.  It is difficult to explain this phenomenon for what would seem to make sense is to be angry at the oppressor and attack him. Instead, what we see is black on black killing at a very high rate.  Perhaps this is due to internalized self-hatred, a hatred projected to other black folks? Perhaps it is due to displacement of anger from the stressful situation these people live under.  Whatever is the cause of it what is self-evident is that they tend to be quick to anger and acting out behaviors. 

         Many persons avoid black folks or are afraid to go to their neighborhoods because of their belief that they are likely to walk into violence that could pose a threat to their lives. Therefore this violence thing must be addressed and reduced.  In my judgment what would reduce violence in these people and in all human beings is love. African Americans need to be loved by all people and they need to love themselves.




        In many papers I tried to understand the human personality.  As in all people, biological and social factors play roles in the etiology of African American personalities. In addition to those we have to look at the abusive experience African Americans had in other to understand them fully. I believe that the history of slavery and racism degraded African Americans and that that sense of degradation is still playing havoc in their lives.

       As Franklyn Frazier and others have pointed out, African Americans tend to be externally oriented; that is, they tend to be preoccupied with efforts to obtain respect from other people; they probably do so because they were denied respect by other people. They spend inordinate amount of money on appearances such as clothes, expensive cars and other symbols that people would take to mean that he is a very important person. A black person performing a minor job would buy an expensive car and dress sharply giving the appearance that he is a wealthy when he is not. It appears that these people tend to devote a lot of time to appearances rather than to producing goods and services needed by their people. 

       There is no doubt that the specific characteristics attributable to slavery and social oppression these people have will in time disappear. Their issues would become the ordinary issues found in all human beings. 

       Considering what they have gone through, the wonder is why they did not suffer more damage than they have; their relative health is a testament to the resilience of the human soul; nothing destroyed these people; they survived with some psychological scars and those scars will heal with time.

       Love heals all psychological wounds and with love their wounded minds will surely heal.






Allport, Gordon (1954), The Nature of Prejudice.  Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.


Clark, Kenneth (1965), The Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (New York: Harper & Row.


 Diop, Cheikh Anta (1974), African Origins of Civilization - Myth or Reality: Chicago, Ill, Lawrence Hill Books.


Elkins, Stanley (1976) Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. University of Chicago Press.


Erikson, Erik (1950), Childhood and Society. New York: W. W. Norton.


Fanon, Franz (1952) Black Skin, White Mask. New York: Grove Press.


Frazier, Franklin (1957), Black Bourgeoisie. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.


Kardina, Abram and Ovesey, Lionel (1954), The Mark of Oppression. New York: W. W. Norton.


Karon, Bertram (1958) The Negro Personality. New York: Springer.


Mannoni, Octave (1956) Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization. New York: Frederick A. Praeger.


Memmi, Albert (1991), The Colonizer and the Colonized. Boston: Beacon Press.


Myrdal, Gunner (1944), An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Harper & Bros.


Pettigrew, Thomas (1964) A Profile of the Negro American. New York: van Nostrand.


Schucman, Helen (1975), A Course in Miracles.  Tiburon, California: Foundation for Inner Peace.


Williams, Chancellor (1987), The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race Between 4500 B.C. and 2000 A.D.  Chicago: Third World Press.



Ozodi Thomas Osuji

April 29, 2012





See More

Latest Photos