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Black men on the couch II – Thursday, 1 December 2011, London

Bernie Grant Arts Centre

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This event is the second in a series aiming to change the status quo surrounding counselling and psychotherapy and open it up to those who would previously have never considered it, either for themselves or as a profession.

Taken by – Richard Bailey Photography
Supplied by – UK Council for Psychotherapy

Respect for Black men on the Couch
Isha Mckenzie-Mavinga

My experience of the presentation of black men on the couch brought home the importance of acknowledging the largely unrecognised impact of racism on the therapeutic process.

At the first sitting of black men on the couch held at The Theatre Royal Stratford psychotherapist Dennis Carney in discussion with Poet Lemn Sissay demonstrated the importance of holding the black male experience. A unique and inspiring peek into the importance of black male bonding and their reflective process. I had no pre-conceived expectations about what might happen, but I had expected to witness the holding of like for like and develop some insights to develop my awareness of the black male gaze.

Lemn Sissay presented aspects of his life story and distresses caused by abandonment, a collective gaze in an isolated predominantly white community and being raised with a false identity. Eventually Lemn researched his roots as a Somalian descendent and gave a clear message to those who interpret his mode of self-expression. “ Poetry is who I am”. As a black woman I learned that anything other than viewing him as he is might be unacceptable. In other words it would be wrong to whiten or feminize black men with my Eurocentric training and my experience of a field dominated by white females and white opinions. This in itself would be a denial of his personal experiences and his psychology as a black man who creatively expresses his experiences and ideas through wordplay. The comment that “The session failed” by the chair of the UKCP during the discussion about the presentation seemed inappropriate and rubbishing to say the least and I am lost as to why as a white man he assumed that his judgment might be a useful contribution to the situation.

The second presentation of black men on the couch was staged at The Bernie Grant centre in Tottenham. Two discussions took place between Psychotherapists’ Eugene Ellis and Poet, novelist and playwright Dr Benjamin Zephaniah and Rotimi Akinsete and MP for Tottenham David Lammy. These were two very different discussions. Benjamin Zephaniah was very open about his life, his personal development process and the influence of domestic violence on his life. He had some very positive guidance for other black men and demonstrated the importance of being open. He has clearly shown that given appropriate support and opportunities and using creative expression, it is possible to be your own therapist. The second presentation was mainly based on David Lammy’s experience of family, community and life and as a black politician. The Bernie grant Centre was an appropriate setting for this discussion as Bernie Grant was a pioneer and hardworking black political leader. The discussion after the presentations was very lively and clearly there was not enough time to field and respond to all the questions and comments. A sign of the huge interest in the therapeutic process as it relates to the lives of black men and that more is needed.

At this event I sat next to the Chief Executive of the UKCP and he shared his observation that. “There seem to be a lot of black women interested in black men on the couch”. To this I agree. And his validating email that followed.

“I am writing to say thank you for ‘Black men on the couch’ in Tottenham. I know you have already been thanked a number of times. But I have to set down on paper (or virtual paper) my own thanks. I meant what I said at the start of the event – I enjoy my job as chief executive of a worthy professional body, but my days are filled with unexciting but necessary admin. The contrast with the atmosphere at the event couldn’t be greater. We were able to stage an event where black men talked to black men about their emotional lives – it was sensitive and bold, and it made me feel proud to be associated with the profession of psychotherapy. I had problems getting away to the tube station because so many people were buzzing and wanting to talk – incredible. I can’t thank you enough, which is why I feel justified thanking you again on behalf of UKCP”.

The two black men that accompanied me to the second event have offered the comments below.

Anthony age 72 “ It’s alright for a black man to be open and honest about their oppressions and the way they have been treated in public”

Aaron age 22. Enlightening to experience an open forum for black men’s’ issues. Nice that people are addressing these issues and that it’s ok to talk.

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