Jung on the Impact of the Negro

“A wholly European or White American culture was thus a fiction. The American Mind Emerson had pointed to in 1837 could now be recognized in 1928 as a racially formed Mind in which the African elements were predominant in the way popular American culture formed.”

Stewart (2018)[1]

“… [Alain Locke’s] earlier anthropology, narrated in a series of articles in the 1920s, showed that America was in essence a Black nation from a folk and popular-culture standpoint.”

Stewart (2018)[2]

“… you are the same as the Negro or the Chinese or whoever you live with, you are all just human beings. In the collective unconscious you are the same as a man of another race, you have the same archetypes, just as you have, like him, eyes, a heart, a liver, and so on. It does not matter that his skin is black.”

Jung (1935)[3]

“Just as the colored man lives in your cities and even within your houses, so also he lives under your skin, subconsciously. Naturally it works both ways. Just as every Jew has a Christ complex, so every Negro has a white complex and every American a Negro complex. As a rule the colored man would give anything to change his skin, and the white man hates to admit that he has been touched by the black.”

Jung (1930)[4]

“The psychology of the unconscious does not lend itself to popular treatment. It is too easily misunderstood

… one needs to know how we can be influenced through the unconscious. I can just as well speak of the primitive contents of the European unconscious. There is no critical slur in these things. Indeed, for a wide-awake person, the primitive contents may often prove to be a source of renewal. The American unconscious is highly interesting, because it contains more varied elements and has a higher tension, owing to the melting-pot and the transplantation to a primitive soil, which caused a break in the traditional background of the Europeans who became Americans. On the one hand, Americans are in a way more highly civilized than Europeans, and on the other hand their wellspring of life energy reaches greater depths. The American unconscious contains an immense number of possibilities.”

Jung (1949)[5]

Some months ago a friend sent me several books on white privilege, white fragility and whiteness[6]–books she had read as part of a reading group. When I gave the books a cursory examination, it quickly became obvious that I was being presented with a major opportunity to confront an aspect of my shadow that I have never really thought about, or encountered, before.

So I immersed myself in several dozen books on African American history, biographies, autobiographies, guidebooks on how to talk about race, and memoirs of people who have “wakened up” to their whiteness.[7] As I expected, this proved to be a humiliating, excruciating process, as shadow work always is. At the end, I created a course for the Jungian Center to provide our students (most of whom do not have the time to read multiple books) with the chance to do similar shadow work. Anticipating the questions our students are likely to ask–What did Jung think of African Americans, and did he think they had any impact on American culture?–I then turned to Jung’s works, and discovered that he had quite a bit to say on this topic. Characteristic of his age (19th/early 20th century) and European culture, he used the term “Negro” to speak of African Americans, and, in this essay, I will retain his usage.

What Did Jung Think of American Negroes?

In the 40 citations where Negroes are mentioned in Jung’s work,[8] Jung does not always make a clear distinction between African or American Negroes. He writes in places of the “primitive” in ways that must refer to Africans.[9] In what follows, I cite only those passages relevant to American Negroes.

In multiple places[10] Jung notes his 1912 trip to the United States, during which he specifically traveled to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C., where the director, Dr. William Alanson White, gave him permission to examine some Negro patients.[11] Jung wanted to know if his hypothesis of the collective unconscious was accurate, i.e. would persons of different backgrounds, cultures, races and origins have dream contents similar to what he had found in his European patients. Jung asked “… are these collective patterns racially inherited, or are they “a priori categories of imagination,” as two Frenchman, Hubert and Mauss, quite independently of my own work, have called them.”[12]

Jung interviewed several patients, and a dream of one patient supported Jung’s idea that archetypes (“collective patterns”) are universal:

“A Negro told me a dream in which occurred the figure of a man crucified on a wheel. I will not mention the whole dream because it does not matter. It contained of course its personal meaning as well as allusions to impersonal ideas, but I picked out only that one motif. He was a very uneducated Negro from the South and not particularly intelligent. It would have been most probable, given the well-known religious character of the Negroes, that he should dream of a man crucified on a cross. The cross would have been a personal acquisition. But it is rather improbable that he should dream of the man crucified on a wheel. That is a very uncommon image. Of course I cannot prove to you that by some curious chance the Negro had not seen a picture or heard something of the sort and then dreamt about it; but if he had not had any model for this idea it would be an archetypal image, because the crucifixion on the wheel is a mythological motif. … In the dream of the Negro, the man on the wheel is a repetition of the Greek mythological motif of Ixion, who, on account of his offense against men and the gods, was fastened by Zeus upon an incessantly turning wheel. I give you this example of a mythological motif in a dream merely in order to convey to you an idea of the collective unconscious. One single example is of course no conclusive proof. But one cannot very well assume that this Negro had studied Greek mythology, and it is improbable that he had seen any representation of Greek mythological figures. Furthermore, figures of Ixion are pretty rare.”[13]

This research on the archetypes on our collective unconscious led Jung to conclude that there is no real difference among the races:

“… you are the same as the Negro or the Chinese or whoever you live with, you are all just human beings. In the collective unconscious you are the same as a man of another race, you have the same archetypes, just as you have, like him, eyes, a heart, a liver, and so on. It does not matter that his skin is black.”[14]

Jung is clear that we are not identical: we all have different personal histories, and our family heritages may reflect different “historical layers,”[15] but, as human beings, we each share the inherited wisdom of humanity lodged in our collective unconscious.

Having traveled extensively around America on his six trips to the United States,[16] Jung knew that Negroes suffered discrimination (Jung was in the U.S. during the Jim Crow era,[17] his first trip being in 1909, his last in 1936), but he also felt that Negroes had fewer “social restrictions”[18] on their behavior: a Negro was cut some slack

“if he behaves in a certain way,… but if a white man behaves in the same way we say, ‘That man is crazy,’ because a white man cannot behave like that. A Negro is expected to do such things but a white man does not do them.”[19]

While Negroes certainly did not (and still do not) enjoy the same freedom whites do, Jung sensed white society did not restrict their behavior in certain ways as it did whites’ behavior.

Jung also recognized “the well-known religious character of the Negroes.”[20] He felt “the Negro is extraordinarily religious,”[21] and “his concepts of God and Christ are very concrete.”[22] While it is unlikely that Jung attended a service in a Negro church, he certainly was aware that the “expression of religious feeling, the revival meetings, the Holy Rollers”[23] were different from the staid practices of white churches. But “in his religion Christ is always a white man.”[24] Jung notes this in a passage in which he speaks of white influence on the Negro.

“For him the white man is pictured as an ideal: in his religion Christ is always a white man. He himself would like to be white or to have white children; conversely, he is persecuted by white men. In the dream examples…  the wish or the task of the Negro to adapt himself to the white man appears very frequently.”[25]

Jung was also aware, however, that as much as Negroes have adapted to the whites, so white American culture has been influenced by the Negro.

Jung on the Impact Negroes Have Had on American Culture

The opening quotes of this essay come from Jeffrey Stewart’s award-winning biography of Alain Locke,[26] one of the motive forces behind the Harlem Renaissance.[27] Locke was an Ivy-League educated professor of philosophy at Howard University who refined Ralph Waldo Emerson’s concept of the American Mind “as a racially formed Mind in which the African elements were predominant in the way popular American culture formed.”[28]

Jung took this further, seeing the influence of Negroes in more than just popular culture:

“The emotional way an American expresses himself, especially the way he laughs, can best be studied in the illustrated supplements of the American papers: the inimitable Teddy Roosevelt laugh is found in its primordial form in the American Negro. The peculiar walk with loose joints, or the swinging of the hips so frequently observed in Americans, also comes from the Negro. American music draws its main inspiration from the Negro, and so does the dance. The expression of religious feeling, the revival meetings, the Holy Rollers and other abnormalities are strongly influenced by the Negro, and the famous American naïveté, in its charming as well as its more unpleasant form,,,,”[29]

reflected, Jung felt, how the Negro had “got into the American.”[30] Jung could observe this perhaps because he was a European: Just as the fish doesn’t recognize water, so we usually fail to spot the distinguishing features of our culture. How we talk, walk, laugh, dance, worship, and respond to life events–all reflect “the wide influence of the Negro on the general character of the people.”[31]

Jung also spotted another aspect of American life which most Americans fail to see: the impact of the “primitive contents”[32] that are part of our American consciousness. It is important here to state that Jung did not use the term “primitive” in a negative way. As he told Carol Baumann, one of his students, “There is no critical slur in these things.”[33] On the contrary,

“… for a wide-awake person, the primitive contents may often prove to be a source of renewal. The American unconscious is highly interesting, because it contains more varied elements and has a higher tension, owing to the melting-pot and the transplantation to a primitive soil, which caused a break in the traditional background of the Europeans who became Americans. On the other hand, Americans are in a way more highly civilized than Europeans, and on the other hand their wellspring of life energy reaches greater depths. The American unconscious contains an immense number of possibilities.”[34]

Our diversity of population affords us a tension (which certain stupid political leaders are vitiating in their castigations of immigrants),[35] but Jung recognized it is a key source of our entrepreneurial spirit and enterprising attitude. How so?

“Tension” is a central theme in Jung’s psychology. He repeatedly urged his students to “hold the tension of opposites” (even going so far as to tell Barbara Hannah that this could be what could avert a nuclear war),[36] and he was always on the lookout for pairs of opposites, which he felt we could find everywhere.[37] The tension of opposites makes possible movement, resolution (the tertium non datur or “third thing” which the psyche produces to reconcile the opposition),[38] and growth. In our American makeup, Jung felt

“there is a discrepancy between conscious and unconscious that is not found in the European, a tension between an extremely high conscious level of culture and an unconscious primitivity. This tension forms a psychic potential which endows the American with an indomitable spirit of enterprise and an enviable enthusiasm which we in Europe do not know.”[39]

So, in addition to “his primitive motility, his expressive emotionality, his childlike directness, his sense of music and rhythm, his funny and picturesque language,”[40] the presence of the “colored man”[41] in America has opened us to more “possibilities” than European cultures have.

To these positives Jung balanced negatives (to be true to his bipolar philosophy). So while the Negro “lives under [our] skin,”[42] we also live under his, and the result is complex:

“Just as every Jew has a Christ complex, so every Negro has a white complex and every American a Negro complex. As a rule the colored man would give anything to change his skin, and the white man hates to admit that he has been touched by the black.”[43]

This surely is true for the white supremacists and racists, who would be shocked (or worse) by Jung’s interpretation of Southern chivalry, which he felt “is a reaction against its [the South’s] instinctive desire to imitate the Negro.”[44] Here we see how Jung thought in pairs, regarding cruelty and chivalry as “another pair of opposites.”[45]

Jung felt segregation and discrimination had obvious negative impact on the lives of Negroes, but it also had an equally negative impact on the unconsciousness of whites: “In the South, where they [Negroes] are not given opportunities equal to the white race, their influence is very great. They are really in control.”[46] Really? Jung recognized that a lot of white Southerners’ energy goes into trying to keep the Negro down, oppressed, e.g. gerrymandering, voter suppression, the activities of white Citizen Councils,[47] de facto forms of segregation etc.

In conclusion, we can say unequivocally that Jung did see Negroes as having enormous impact on American culture, society and mentality. For us at the Jungian Center, our course on White Privilege gives us the opportunity to recognize our racism as whites, our “white fragility,” how our whiteness has been a part of our shadow, and how, by our unconsciousness around this aspect of our shadow, we have been complicit in racial oppression.

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this essay.

Bibliography

Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

Brown, Claude (1965), Manchild in the Promised Land: A Modern Classic of the Black Experience. New York: New American Library.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi (2015), Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

De Veaux, Alexis (2004), Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde. New York: W.W. Norton.

Diangelo, Robin (2018), White Fragility. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ferguson, Jeffrey (2008), The Harlem Renaissance: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. (2019) Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow. New York: Penguin Press.

Haley, Alex (1976), Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Garden City: Doubleday.

Hannah, Barbara (1976), Jung: His Life and Work, A Biographical Memoir. New York: G.P. Putnam.

Irving, Debby (2014), Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. Cambridge MA: Elephant Room Press.

Jung, C.G. (1956) “Symbols of Transformation,” Collected Works, 5, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press

________ (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), ”The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Development of Personality,” CW 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1977), C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, ed. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Landrieu, Mitch (2018), In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History. New York: Viking.

McKesson, Deray (2018), On the Other Side of Freedom. New York: Viking.

Metzl, Jonathan (2019), Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland. New York: Basic Books.

Oluo, Ijeoma (2018), So You Want to Talk About Race. New York: Seal Press.

Rosenberg, Rosalind (2017), Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray. New York: Oxford University Press.

Simmons, Gloria & Helene Hutchinson (1972), Black Culture: Reading and Writing Black. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Stampp, Kenneth (1956), The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Vintage Books.

Stanton, William (1960), The Leopard’s Spots: Scientific Attitudes toward Race in America, 1815-1859. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stevenson, Bryan (2015), Just Mercy. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Stewart, Jeffrey (2018), The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke. New York: Oxford University Press.

Twenge, Jean (2017), iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. New York: Atria Books.

Tyson, Timothy (2017), The Blood of Emmett Till. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ward, Jesmyn (2016), The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons.

Washington, Booker T., W.E.B DuBois, James W. Johnson (1965), Three Negro Classics. New York: Avon Books.

[1] Stewart (2018), 596.

[2] Ibid., 787.

[3] Collected Works 18 ¶93. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[4] CW 10 ¶963. It is important to remember that Jung was a man of his time, nationality, and heritage.

[5] Jung (1977), 195-6.

[6] Diangerlo (2018), Irving (2014), Landrieu (2018) and Ward (2016); see the bibliography infra for full publishing information.

[7] All of these books are listed in the bibliography infra.

[8] CW 5 ¶154 & note; CW 6 ¶s46,747 & note,851,963; CW 7 ¶s323,374; CW 8 ¶s94,669; CW 9i ¶25; CW 9ii ¶s293,329; CW 10 ¶s95,99,103,249,962-963,965-967; CW 11 ¶s31,200; CW 13 ¶76; CW 17 ¶s104,300; CW 18 ¶s15,72,79,81-82,93-94,262,275,341,1285 & note.

[9] E.g. CW 10 ¶249, and CW 18 ¶415.

[10] CW 5 ¶154 & note; CW 6 ¶747; CW 10 ¶99; CW 18 ¶79; Jung (1977), 434.

[11] CW 5 ¶154, note 52.

[12] CW 18 ¶81.

[13] Ibid. ¶82.

[14] Ibid. ¶93.

[15] Ibid.

[16] In 1909,1910,1912,1913,1924 & 1936; Bair (2003), 153,184,229,269,330 & 417, respectively.

[17] See Gates (2019) for a vivid picture of this horrible era.

[18] CW 18 ¶72.

[19] Ibid.

[20] CW 18 ¶81.

[21] Ibid. ¶1285.

[22] Ibid.

[23] CW 10 ¶95.

[24] CW 18 ¶1285.

[25] Ibid.

[26] This book won the National Book Award in 2018. It certainly deserves it!

[27] For more on the Harlem Renaissance, see Ferguson (2008).

[28] Stewart (2018), 596.

[29] CW 10 ¶95.

[30] CW 18 ¶94.

[31] CW 10 ¶96.

[32] Jung (1977), 195-196.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] E.g. Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Viktor Orban.

[36] Hannah (1976), 129.

[37] Jung (1977), 13.

[38] CW 6 ¶169.

[39] CW 10 ¶103.

[40] Ibid. ¶965.

[41] Ibid. ¶963.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Jung (1977), 14.

[45] Ibid., 15-16.

[46] Ibid.

[47] For more on this Southern invention to enforce the Jim Crow system, see Tyson (2017), 94-102.