Honoring Black Pioneers in Mental Health
For Black History Month, Cedar Counseling & Wellness is highlighting several Black and Indigenous people of color who have made significant contributions to psychology and mental health, as well as several clinicians, licensed therapists, and creators working today. We cannot meet people where they are without everyone having a place at the table, a person who can understand their background and experiences at an intimate level. This month and always, we honor the work of those who’ve paved the way against systemic obstacles, and reaffirm our commitment to helping to take down systems of injustice and inequity for both future mental health workers and individuals.
In history: Mamie Phipps Clark, PhD, and Kenneth Clark, PhD
Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983) was the first African-American woman to earn a Doctor of Philosophy degree in psychology from Columbia University. Her master’s thesis, entitled "The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children,” was a collaborative effort with her husband, Kenneth Clark.
Kenneth Clark (1914-2005) was the first African-American man to earn a PhD in psychology from Columbia. He also served as the first Black president of the American Psychological Association in 1970 and was the recipient of the APA's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994.
Mamie Phipps Clark's thesis work was the groundwork for the Clarks’ groundbreaking studies known as the "doll tests" in the 1940s. In these tests, children were given a blonde, blue-haired doll and a Black doll with brown eyes, and researchers asked them questions about which doll they would prefer to play with. These experiments were the first of their kind on the broad effect of racism and white supremacy on Black children, and provided powerful data for the value of support of Black children.
Their work was a powerful force during the Civil Rights movement, and they testified as expert witnesses in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 to advocate for desegregation in the public school system.
"A racist system inevitably destroys and damages human beings; it brutalizes and dehumanizes them, blacks and whites alike." - Mamie Phipps Clark, PhD
Sonya Renee Taylor
Sonya Renee Taylor is an activist, spoken word artist, and author of The Body Is Not An Apology, a book which evaluates eating disorders and body acceptance through the lens of structural injustice, and envisions a radical self-love along with changing systems in order to liberate individuals and groups. Her book acknowledges how bodies are the site of explicit violence as well as more subtle indignities, all of which are affected by the structures of the world we inhabit.
“Living in a female body, a Black body, an aging body, a fat body, a body with mental illness is to awaken daily to a planet that expects a certain set of apologies to already live on our tongues. There is a level of “not enough” or “too much” sewn into these strands of difference.”
― Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love
Christyna Johnson, MS, RDN, LDN
A major figure in intuitive eating and Health at Every Size, Christyna Johnson’s work focuses on marginalized populations and their unique needs from clinicians and mental health practitioners. Christyna discusses anti-diet and anti-fatphobia movements, integrating concepts of body diversity, nutrition, and body neutrality with social justice.
“so when I sit across from my black clients, I get it. I know what it feels like to try to shrink yourself. to try to silence yourself. to try and be less vocal. less opinionated. smaller. quieter. invisible. it works, until it doesn’t. invariably who you truly are will find it’s way back to the surface.
so when I learn off three different famous black women who all battled bulimia, I get it. it wasn’t really about trying to change their body size, weight, or shape. they needed somewhere for their emotions to go, in order to hang on to the veneer of a Strong Black Woman.
aside from the fact that the research is criminally lacking, we as a field have a long way to go to actually speaking to the lived experience of black folks with eating disorders.
be patient. be gentle. be kind.” - Christyna Johnson, MS, RDN, LDN
Nedra Tawwab is a licensed therapist and relationship expert, whose much-anticipated book Set Boundaries, Find Peace will be released this week. Her popular instagram account focuses on the value of setting boundaries with the people in our lives, navigating the challenging parts of growth, breaking dysfunctional cycles in ourselves and families, and being honest with ourselves and others about our limitations. Her approach is kind, supportive, and offers unusual perspectives on complicated topics.
“People can love you in your brokenness. Someone can love you right where you are. Even as you’re healing, you are worthy of being treated with love and dignity. Mistreatment is never your fault. And you do not deserve to be mistreated because you don’t love yourself enough.” - Nedra Tawwab
Shana Minei Spence, MS, RDN, CDN
Well-known for her changeable letter board instagram posts, Shana Spence is a Health At Every Size-focused clinician whose work encourages individuals to expand their understanding of healthy, to part from food rules, and to experience life free from the pain of disordered eating. Her posts discuss a broad range of health promoting behaviors and are interspersed with videos of her practicing her own joyful movement - often dance. Her posts are accessible and informative, and offer valuable insights into managing eating disorders and incorporating health-promoting choices.
“Well don't because perfection doesn't exist (in any form really). Remember (re)building a healthy relationship with food is about progress NOT perfection.” - Shana Minei Spence, MS, RDN, CDN
Brittany Cobb, MSW, LCSW
Brittany Cobb’s work focuses on breaking cycles, on evaluating unhelpful patterns in oneself, and in making mental health content which speaks to the particular needs of Black and Indigenous People of Color. Her work offers compassionate ways to challenge both the frameworks we’ve grown up with and the systems that inform them.
“I believe in Therapy because it is life changing.
As a patient, Therapy gave me the tools to create healthy relationships, be assertive, set boundaries & has helped me manage my own anxiety.
As a Therapist, I create safe spaces for people as they confront emotional pain & trauma.
Therapy works when people feel safe, supported and are given the tools to create a life they want to live.
Therapy can work for you.
My goal is to promote mental wellness while providing education & fighting the stigma associated with Therapy and Mental Health in the black community. ” - Brittany Cobb, MSW, LCSW
There are many more activists and philosophers who have contributed to furthering Black people’s rights and access to support and healthcare - too many to cover in a single blog post. The work of bell hooks, Angela Davis, Roxane Gay, and many others have profoundly influenced the landscape of Black thought, and played a major role in expanding a cultural understanding of marginalized people and structural racism. This blog post can be used as a starting point for exploring the impactful work of Black clinicians, activists, and mental health workers, and their work and many others are well worth the research!
Martin, J. (1994). Clark, Kenneth B. 1914–. Contemporary Black Biography.
Butler, S. (2009). Mamie Katherine Phipps Clark (1917–1983). The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.
"What is Body Terrorism?". http://thebodyisnotanapology.com. Retrieved 5 March 2015.