WORKING WITH AFRICAN AMERICAN CLIENTS: CONSIDERING THE “HOMEPLACE” IN MARRIAGE AND FAMILY THERAPY PRACTICES
Burton, Linda M
In this article, we discuss perspectives on the “homeplace” that are important to consider in marriage and family therapy involving African American clients. The homeplace comprises individual and family processes that are anchored in a defined physical space that elicits feelings of empowerment, rootedness, ownership, safety, and renewal. Critical elements of the homeplace include social relationships that shape individuals’ and families’ sense of social and cultural identity. We draw on our ethnographic and clinical research with African American families in urban and rural settings to describe typical schisms between therapists and African American clients when communicating about the homeplace. We also explore the impact of homeplace disruptions on experiences of “yearning.” Recommendations for integrating a homeplace perspective into therapy practices are provided.
In this article we introduce the concept “homeplace” into the marriage and family therapy (MFT) literature. Specifically, we outline perspectives on the homeplace that are important to consider in the assessment and treatment of African American clients, but are rarely integrated into therapy practices. The homeplace involves multilayered, nuanced individual and family processes that are anchored in a physical space that elicits feelings of empowerment, belonging, commitment, rootedness, ownership, safety, and renewal. Critical elements of the homeplace include social attachments and relationships characterized by distinct cultural symbols, meanings, and rituals. In the context of a defined, physical space, these attachments and relationships shape individuals’ and families’ sense of social and cultural identity.
Introducing a discussion on African Americans and homeplace into the MFT literature gives rise to a critical question: Why should MFTs be interested in acquiring insights on this issue? Indeed, a powerful legacy of literary and social science discourse on the homeplace implies that it is a critical matter to consider in counseling and therapy practices with most African American clients, regardless of noteworthy within-group differences among African Americans in regional life styles (e.g., southern), skin color, racial identity, social class status, or religious affinity (hooks, 1990). This assertion is grounded in communal and collectivist perspectives about African Americans’ experiences in the United States and draws attention to the lingering impact of forced geographic and cultural displacement (e.g., slavery), racism, and social and economic marginality on the necessity of homeplace in African Americans’ daily lives (Franklin, 1997; Holliday & Holmes, 2003; Massey & Denton, 1993; Oliver & Shapiro, 1995).
Moreover, in our long-term ethnographic and clinical research with African Americans, the homeplace consistently emerges as a force that individuals and families must reckon with throughout the life course (Burton, Hurt, Eline, & Matthews, 2001; Stevenson, Winn, Cord, & Walker-Barnes, 2003). The homeplace has shown itself to be a source of strength and social defiance in the life victories of those who have a viable one. It also is manifested as unrealized dreams or sources of conflict, loss, and grief for those who do not have a homeplace.
The writings of bell hooks (1990) are particularly persuasive on matters of the homeplace and African Americans. In her critically acclaimed collection of essays, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, she underscores the importance of the homeplace relative to the survival and coping strategies of African Americans. Recounting memories of childhood visits to her grandparents’ home, hooks characterizes the homeplace as a communal experience anchored in a domestic household where “all that truly mattered in life took place-the warmth and comfort of shelter, the feeding of our bodies, the nurturing of our souls. There we learned dignity, integrity of being-there we learned to have faith” (hooks, 1990, pp. 41-42).
hooks (1990) also describes the homeplace as a “site of resistance” forged principally through the intergenerational labor of African American women. As a site of resistance, the homeplace is where African Americans could freely confront humanization issues, develop a political consciousness, and resist racist stereotypes and oppression, hooks (1990) states that African American women design the homeplace to be a physical and social environment where “black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship, and deprivation, where we could restore to ourselves the dignity denied us on the outside in the public world” (p. 42).
hooks (1990) argues that African Americans experience a deep sense of yearning when they either do not have a homeplace, cannot create one, are embattled about keeping it, or are working to reclaim it. Yearning is an individual’s or family’s psychological and emotional longing for connectedness to place, for a sense of rootedness and purpose, and for a crucible of affirmation of one’s sense of social and cultural identity.
hooks’ essays on the homeplace highlight the historical, political, cultural, racial, and social consciousness necessary for understanding the lived experiences of many African Americans. In fact, her perspective is reified in numerous venues (Allan & Crow, 1999; Altman & Werner 1985; Burton & Lawson Clark, in press; Clarke, 1993; Gilbert, 1998; Perkins, Thorns, Winstanley, & Newton, 2002; Sanders, 1993; Stack & Burton, 1993; Vivero & Jenkins, 1999). For example, Waniek (1993), in The Homeplace, and Dilworth-Williams (2002), in Panola: My Kinfolks’ Land,, artfully depict the cultural ethos of the homeplace in their respective collections of poetry. Their verses poignantly describe the family labor involved in men, women, and children creating a homeplace, the routines and rituals that embody it, the physical space that gives the homeplace form, and what happens in the lives of African Americans who do not have one.
Stack (1996) in her classic ethnography, Call to Home, recounts the return migration of adult African Americans to the poor rural south, and, in doing so, reveals the homeplace as a critical and dynamic developmental process in their lives. African American families involved in her study experienced the homeplace as an omnipotent entity that could send you away in early adulthood and call you back in mid-life; that hastened you to reclaim your childhood attachment to the land and the rootedness that soil, a family house, or a community cemetery provide; that beckoned you to assume a family caregiving responsibility anchored in the very place life began for you; that was a safe haven from the uncompromising demands of living in high-risk urban neighborhoods; and, as a site of resistance, could shape your political consciousness and destiny.
Gieryn (2000) provides theoretical principles useful for studying the homeplace, noting that it has three essential features: Geographic location, material form, and investment with meaning and value. He contends that home, nested in a definable space, is the crucible from which a person’s social identity emerges, transforms, and is internalized and sustained over time.
As noted earlier in this article, we also draw on our collective and individual ethnographic and clinical research with African American families in urban and rural settings to discuss the meaning of homeplace and its importance for understanding and contextualizing the lives of African American client populations (see Burton et al., 2001; Burton & Lawson Clark, in press; Pinderhughes, Winn, & Nicholson, 2003; Stack & Burton, 1993; Stevenson, 2003, 2004; Winn, Nicholoson, & Hyman, 2002). In our long-term research with African American families, many respondents have told us that their sentiments about and commitments to their homeplaces are often minimized or ignored in the therapy services they receive. Their comments about their homeplaces are spontaneous, very passionate, and frequently unsolicited by us. Our experiences with respondents prodding us to hear their voices relative to the homeplace has convinced us to argue that MFTs acknowledging and integrating an understanding of the homeplace in therapy practices can lead to greater cultural awareness, and novel insights and opportunities in the efficacious assessment and treatment of African American clients.
In this article, we provide concrete examples of the importance of homeplace in the lives of African Americans through descriptions of representative situations we have observed, or that families have delineated for us in our research or clinical practices. We begin with a brief discussion of the importance of homeplace in the lives of African American families and then describe typical schisms between therapists and African Americans when communicating about the homeplace. Using two case studies from clinical practice, we also explore the impact of homeplace disruption on experiences of yearning. In presenting respondents’ and clients’ words and their case studies we use pseudonyms to protect their identities. We conclude with specific recommendations for therapists on how to integrate an understanding of homeplace in assessment and treatment practices with African American clients.
HOMEPLACE IN THE LIVES OF AFRICAN AMERICANS
For at least two decades, both separately and collectively, we have worked with hundreds of African American families in large-scale, longitudinal ethnographic studies of urban and rural communities in various states (e.g., California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas), or as clinicians in private practice and community-based prevention and intervention programs (see Burton & Lawson Clark, in press; Pinderhughes, Winn, & Nicholson, 2003; Stack & Burton, 1993; Stevenson, 2003; Winn et al., 2002). In our work, we consistently witness the importance of the homeplace in the day-to-day lives and survival of African Americans, regardless of their gender, socioeconomic status, geographic region of residence, or religious affiliation.
Families’ recognition of the importance of the homeplace in their lives emerges in multiple ways in our work with them. Some participants and clients consciously experience the homeplace and are very clear in articulating its salience in their lives. Others struggle with the words, but often refer to the homeplace as their “safe place,” “a place to belong,” or as their longing for “something called home.” Still others talk about it as the “something” that is missing in their lives or, as one research participant noted, “a void that means I belong nowhere and to no one. I have no history to draw strength from, no place to go and hide or feel safe when the world kicks my ass.” Individual expressions of the latter sentiment reflect deep-seated yearning on the part of our research participants and clients who do not have a homeplace, and are often accompanied by individuals disclosing fantasies about their ideal homeplace. Seventeen-year-old Benjamin’s description of his ideal homeplace epitomizes comments we typically hear from individuals struggling to find one:
Oh, if I only had a house and home like the Cosbys! I would never be scared again. Nothing from the streets could get me. I could come home and close the door and my four sisters Rudy, Vanessa, Denise, and Sondra and my parents Claire and Cliff would be there and we would laugh and talk and everything would be good. All the problems would be on the other side of the front door. Being Black would be just fine, just fine. No pain, no pain.
Moreover, several of our research participants and clients have mentioned to us that when they talk about creating a home with social service workers or therapists, their statements are often misinterpreted as simply meaning, “I want housing; I need my own unit in the projects; or, I need stronger family support.” Our experience is that families’ ideas about the homeplace are, indeed, more substantial than the previous quotes suggests. Their beliefs and behaviors about the homeplace resonate with those described by hooks (1990) and are intricately woven into multiple aspects of their lives. In fact, their beliefs and behaviors are often culturally nuanced, meaning that they may not be readily apparent to therapists who have little experience working with African American clients, or do not have the skills or knowledge to discern the underlying cultural and situational meanings associated with homeplace. For example, in cases in which African American clients are in crisis about housing, resolving the crisis may not be a matter of simply helping the family acquire a house. Rather, it may be a matter of helping the family create and sustain an anchor or physical homeplace that provides them the emotional and spiritual safety, power, and affirmation necessary to handle daily subtle experiences with racial degradation or identity issues that they may have failed to mention in their therapy sessions.
A viable homeplace serves specific functions for African Americans, particularly when viewed in the context of race, gender, and class discrimination (Clark, 1993). In the best of situations, it is a sanctuary-a place to go physically, mentally, or emotionally, for healing and renewal from frequent discriminatory assaults both subtle and overt. Indeed, the homeplace is a space to forge and develop resilience, a site of resistance in which men, women, and children in some of the families we observe become empowered, build self-confidence, and develop a healthy cultural identity and political consciousness. For many African American families, the homeplace is a physical, political, social, and personal necessity in their lives (Burton & Lawson Clark, in press; Clark, 1993; hooks, 1990; Gilbert, 1998; Young. 1997).
Although a viable homeplace can be source of strength, it is not an entity without contradictions and tensions that must be continually navigated and negotiated. The significance of the homeplace in individuals’ lives varies across time with some embracing it life long and others rebuking it during critical developmental periods (e.g., adolescence). The process of embracing and rebuking the homeplace creates relationship tensions in families, which can temporarily compromise the “refuge” quality of home (Stevenson et al, 2003; Winn et al., 2002). Although healthy families and the individuals within them are able to weather these tensions, those without the skills to do so continually flounder as they consciously, and sometimes unconsciously, yearn for a homeplace.
Our work with African American families suggests that a viable homeplace is a critical anchor in the lives of African Americans, allowing them to survive and thrive over time. However, as one 54-year-old ethnographic research participant indicated to us, many of the social service workers and therapists she works with do not seem to understand the meaning of homeplace in her life. She states:
That counselor just doesn’t get it. We have a major disconnect. She has no idea of what I’m saying, as a Black woman, when I talk about home and what I want for my children and grandbabies in a home. If she understood, maybe we could make some progress.
Below we provide several examples of this homeplace schism in the therapist/client relationship.
Many of the low-income African American families with whom we work do not possess a homeplace, or they are struggling to maintain one. In doing so, they often face criticism and overt frustration from therapists who “don’t seem to understand why they make the housing choices that they do.” For example, consider the case of Cherise, a 20-year-old single mother of a 3-year-old son. For a period of 6 months, Cherise participated in group counseling sessions for young mothers in need of housing. The program was designed to help clients develop self-esteem and responsible behaviors that would lead them eventually to acquiring and sustaining their own home.
Cherise was an active participant in the program and attended all therapy sessions. At the end of the 6-month program Cherise’s therapist drove Cherise to her new apartment, which was located 10 miles from her mother’s home in a predominately white neighborhood. Cherise noted that the apartment was beautiful, but much to her therapist’s dismay, Cherise turned down the apartment almost immediately. Cherise recounts her experience:
My counselor freaked out when I told her, I ain’t moving over here. I can’t do it. I want a house but I don’t feel safe around all these white people and I won’t have no protection over here. What is she trying to do, make me into a white girl? I can’t do it! I would miss my peeps [people] and it would make me look like I think I’m better than my family at home.
Like Cherise, for many of the African American mothers in our studies who live in or near the same neighborhood in which they were raised close to other family members, their attachment to place has been essential in constructing their social and ethnic/racial identities and in enhancing their self-esteem (Fischer, 1982; Howard, 2000). These place attachments, which provide people and groups with a sense of unique cultural identity, may also offer some explanation as to why some African American mothers who moved to the suburbs through housing programs (e.g., Moving to Opportunity) speak highly of the experience, but eventually return to their old neighborhoods (Burton, 2001; Burton & Graham, 1998; Burton & Jarrett, 2000; Goering & Feins, 2003; Low, 1992; Minuchin, Colapinto, & Minuchin, 1998; Rosenbaum & Harris, 2000, 2002). Meisha’s situation further illustrates this point.
Meisha, a 26-year-old mother of five, spent her entire life living in Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) developments. The housing authority gave Meisha three choices when her project housing was scheduled for demolition-scattered site, a housing voucher, or another CHA development. She chose scattered-site housing in a large, middle-income, predominately white suburb on the outskirts of Chicago. She describes her experience while living there as:
Wonderful, I mean wonderful. Forty dollars a month is what I have to pay. I had a house full of furniture, I had everything I wanted-cable, just everything, and it was just wonderful. I just miss it, I really do. It was better than CHA . . . DuPage is like global, you know . . . they got more technology than I ever seen and things that they doin’ over here in Chicago, they been did over there in DuPage. It’s just different, it’s like goin’ to another different state. DuPage is the richest county in Chicago, so it’s marvelous and I like it out there. I been all out there and it’s just the way you would wanta live, I mean, you go home, you don’t have to worry about nothin’. It’s like you stress free when you out there, you don’t have to worry about all that stuff, that gang bangin’, hangin’ out on the front . . .
Unfortunately, Meisha’s mother, with whom she had a very close relationship, died suddenly and Meisha decided to move back to the city and her original homeplace. Meisha’s mother had played a major role in sustaining her day-to-day connectedness to her Chicago homeplace. When her mother died, Meisha’s most salient connection to the homeplace was lost and, consequently, she decided to return home to personally tend to her relationships with kin and to assure that the family homeplace was maintained as a site of refuge. Although Meisha reminisces about moving back in the future, she has decided to remain in her former neighborhood for the time being. For now, it is where she feels comforted and grounded.
HOMEPLACE DISRUPTIONS: A MATTER OF YEARNING
Although a discussion of homeplace schisms provide useful insights to therapists on the moving, staying, and returning behaviors of some African Americans, exploring disruptions in the homeplace offers equally important perspectives. Disruptions in one’s connection to homeplace can be voluntary or forced, short-term or long-term, modest or profound. Disruptions occur when one physically leaves the homeplace (e.g., going away to college), when one’s homeplace is destroyed (e.g., fire, urban renewal, gentrification), when the homeplace provides inadequate nurturance and assistance with an individual’s attempt to establish his or her identity, or when the homeplace fails to be a safe place to be oneself and learn to be a better person (e.g., domestic violence). Modest disruptions in homeplace result in individuals’ feeling as if they can and do return to their homeplace psychologically and/or physically even though their return is stressful and conflicted. Profound disruptions are ones in which returning home conjures up feelings of alienation, isolation, and most importantly, intense yearning.
Yearning is a typical response to homeplace disruptions regardless of the circumstances that prompted the disruptions. Unresolved yearning and ineffective coping strategies can often be manifested in individuals having symptoms that range from mild (e.g., restlessness, dysphoria, agitation) to severe (e.g., clinical depression, anger and violent behaviors, self-injurious behaviors) emotional and mental health problems. The following case studies, featuring the homeplace disruptions of David and Brenda, illustrate the ways in which prolonged yearning is manifested and treated in a therapeutic context.
David: “All I Want is My Homeplace Back”
David is the first born and only son of a young, single African American mother with three children. David has two younger sisters, one of whom is two and a half years his junior. Until David was 6, he enjoyed a life of simple pleasures-playing in the dirt with his siblings, attending school, and sitting at home for hours with his mother. His family has always been economically disadvantaged, receiving public assistance, free medical care and school lunches, and living in a single-wide trailer. In reflecting back on the poverty in which he grew up, David’s most poignant recollection is that he and his sisters were often made fun of by kids at school because of their tattered and second-hand clothing.
For as far back as David can remember, his mother used drugs on a recreational basis. By the time David was 8 years old, his mother’s long-time recreational substance use turned into a debilitating substance abuse problem. David’s mother began to leave him to care for his young sisters for days at a time, and when she returned home, she was physically abusive to all of her children, especially to David. She also started accusing David of sexually abusing his sisters despite a lack of evidence to suggest that he was doing so. David’s sisters coped with their mother’s behaviors by withdrawing and crying. David coped by continuing to fulfill his sibling caretaking responsibilities at home, while erupting with fits of anger, foul language, and violent outbursts at school.
By the time he reached age 10, David and his siblings were removed from their home. His sisters were placed with one foster care family, and David was placed in another. After several failed attempts at drug treatment, followed by a modestly successful one, his mother was able to regain custody of David’s two sisters. His mother’s own untreated sexual abuse and resulting paranoia about the potential for David to abuse his two younger siblings precluded David’s returning home for anything more than weekend visits. During these visits, David’s mother scrutinized his behavior and was very critical of every move he made.
At first, David was able to cope successfully with what he considered to be his disrupted connection to his homeplace. His foster family, a very warm, gentle, middle-class couple with no children, provided many natural ways for David to re-create a homeplace. Their large, well-appointed house and the reality of having his own bedroom did not seem to mean as much to David as the time he spent just laughing and joking around with his foster parents. David made friends in his new neighborhood and tried hard to get them to play some of his favorite games from the neighborhood he once lived in. He had pictures of his mother and sisters, which he kept hidden in a box in his room, and he kept the key to his mother’s house on a chain around his neck. Although David would spontaneously talk about wanting to return home someday, he seemed content to live, for at least the immediate future, with his foster parents.
Shortly after David turned 12, his foster father was diagnosed with a terminal illness. As soon as David was told of his foster father’s illness, he became very focused on “going back home.” The comfort he derived from his substitute homeplace appeared to dissolve instantaneously. Although his foster home had once been a place of refuge, it was now a place that felt hollow and fragile. David became fixated on the fact that his foster mother would eventually tire of him, die, or send him away, even though she expressed a desire to adopt him. He became demanding and materialistic, denigrating others for not spending more time with him. David so desperately yearned for a homeplace that he created a fictionalized connection to his biological father, a man who had abandoned him when David was only two years old. He spoke of his father’s home as “that’s where I should have been all along . . . not with Ana (foster mother), she’s not my family.”
David’s yearning became so strong that he galvanized social service workers in two states to arrange a visit with his biological father. After a brief visit in which his father admitted his unwillingness to take David into his home permanently, David returned to his foster home, dejected. For the first time in his short life, David began to consider gang affiliation as a viable alternative to his severely disrupted connection to homeplace. “Why not, I don’t belong nowhere. My daddy don’t want me and . . . every time I go home my Momma thinks I’m gonna mess with my sisters . . . after all those years I was they parent while she was strung out.” Within weeks of his return, David’s clothing, body markings, and drawings became consistent with someone who was gang affiliated.
Once David showed signs of gang affiliation, two strategies were implemented by social service workers, both of which failed. Placing David in a distant juvenile detention facility further disrupted his connection to homeplace and exacerbated David’s problems. Taking David to see people ravaged by gang violence and getting him to talk about his feelings of being rejected by his family were equally unsuccessful. These interventions only served to amplify David’s experience of disconnectedness and seemed to validate his sense that helping professionals were out to destroy his dream of family reunification and going home.
The goal of therapy, then, became to help David create a physical, emotional, and social connection to a homeplace. It was only through helping David to re-create a connection to homeplace that his behaviors and mental health improved. First, the therapist normalized his need for a connection to his homeplace, which prompted David to suggest that he have supervised visits with his siblings without his mother’s presence, so that he could avoid her unfounded accusations of him sexually abusing his sisters. During these visits, he gave his sisters presents he bought or made, he warned them to watch out for boys that meant to do them harm, he reviewed their homework, and he encouraged their success in school.
After almost a year of searching together, the therapist also helped David to: (a) indentify a trusted community of extended relationships that included distant relatives on his father’s side who were willing to take him in for weekend respite; (b) reestablish his connection with his previous foster mother; and (c) reconnect with several old teachers who had worked with him as a child in the neighborhood school close to his original homeplace. In addition, David intermittently got social service workers to drive by his old home when no one was there so he could “check on things.”
The implementation of these homeplace strategies helped David to emerge successfully from some very difficult life experiences. He grew to value the times he spent with others while also appreciating that his yearning for his homeplace was normal and that he could create a proxy of the elements of homeplace that could sustain him and “keep him out of trouble” over time.
Brenda: “The Challenges of Moving On Up”
Brenda is a middle aged, African American female with an upper-middle-class income. She grew up in the rural south and, being one of few in her community to excel academically, she received a full scholarship to a college out west. After completing her degree, she launched a very high-powered career characterized by multiple awards and promotions and involvement in numerous community outreach activities.
Brenda is also a mother of two sons, a wife of more than 15 years, and has a considerably large extended kin network. She reports that lier relationships with her husband and children are very rewarding and that she continues to work on her relationship with her kin network. In fact, a few years ago, Brenda, her husband, and her children moved back to the east coast to be nearer to her family and homeplace of origin. At the time Brenda entered therapy, she and her family were visiting her homeplace in the rural south twice a year.
Brenda’s presenting complaint in therapy was repetitive eating of fast food, despite having otherwise healthy eating habits, engaging in regular strenuous exercise, and having healthy physical exams. When stressed, Brenda did not gorge, binge, or purge the fast food; instead, she would order the same meal at the drive thru, and eat it in the privacy of her home. At various points in the past, Brenda had relied on ministers, therapists, and physicians to help her deal with cycles of mild to moderate depression and her repetitive eating of fast foods. She reported that courses of medication and cognitive-behavioral therapies only resulted in a partial amelioration of her symptoms.
From her previous therapists, Brenda understood that ingesting a particular fast food meal (e.g., a hamburger and extra-large fries) served as a partial reenactment of a childhood family routine that occurred in her homeplace with people who affirmed her. When Brenda was a child, her family would go to local fast food restaurants to celebrate successes. In these fast food restaurants, her elders would consistently and profoundly heap on praise, prophesy about her brilliant future, and remind her that she was capable of doing anything she put her mind to. Recounting these experiences, Brenda understood that she used fast food as a coping mechanism during periods of stress. What was less clear was why this knowledge failed to result in significant behavioral and emotional change. The crux of therapy, then, was to understand what subtle disruptions in homeplace prevailed for Brenda and to develop ways to repair or recreate more meaningful connections to her homeplace.
Working together, Brenda and her therapist uncovered the subtle ways in which Brenda’s social mobility had placed a strain on the quality of her connections to her homeplace. In particular, the role of poverty in Brenda’s family seemed to have contributed greatly to her disrupted experience of homeplace. While maintaining a heavy emphasis on family connectedness, Brenda’s family had rallied around her academic acumen and helped her to forge new paths of academic and financial achievement, heretofore not accomplished by anyone in her family. Her parents had made sacrifices to help get her through school that resulted in those resources not being available to her siblings. In addition, Brenda’s older siblings were directed to abandon their educational aspirations temporarily to help the family when her father became disabled. Over time, Brenda’s wealth had mushroomed, while her family’s income had stayed the same.
Brenda’s guilt about having profited so much from “the blessings” of her homeplace relative to other family members contributed to her secret feelings of “never really [being able to] go home again.” What Brenda valued, what she wore, what she ate, and the fact that she routinely vacationed was very different from the norm in her homeplace in the rural south. As such, the frequency and quality of her connection to homeplace had slowly deteriorated over the years. Fearing that her differences would spell disaster, Brenda began hiding more and more of her highs (e.g., promotions, fancy purchases) and her lows (e.g., feeling isolated from home, experiences of racism in the workplace) from her family. Brenda secretly dreaded the time when she might be called to return home to care for her aging parents, because she feared that all of her differences would result in a disastrous clash of cultures. As a result, Brenda had resigned herself to being satisfied with “sending money home” when the need arose.
Through therapy to reconnect to her homeplace, Brenda transferred the energy she used in managing her guilt about her success to more productive endeavors. She gained great feelings of pride for being a part of such a resourceful and self-sacrificing family. She took on the role of helping to ensure that her family continued to rally and support others’ economic sufficiency. She helped institute a family emergency fund that members could pay back by doing extra deeds to promote further success by family members. She established a reimbursement account for books and supplies for family members who successfully matriculated at postsecondary institutions and encouraged her family to learn more about money management and fiscal responsibility. She also began a routine during family reunions of having family elders share stories about economic sacrifice designed to promote family success and having youth share stories about how they used the fruits of their family’s economic status, no matter how meager, to help bring honor and cohesion to the family.
Equally as important to repairing Brenda’s homeplace disruption was her willingness to begin to use the homeplace as a place to be herself and strive to be a better, more honest self. She began sharing her highs and her lows with her family members, returning home, prophylactically, for refuge. She also began prominently displaying remnants of her homeplace around her office and current home. She now feels that her differences are accepted and incorporated by a homeplace ready to fully reclaim one of its own.
The purpose of this article was to introduce the concept “homeplace” into the MFT literature. Specifically, we outlined perspectives on the homeplace that are important to consider in the assessment and treatment of African American clients, but may be rarely integrated into therapy practices. Our intent in this article was not to romanticize the homeplace, nor was it to imply that the insights presented here are only useful or relevant for African American clients. Rather, our goal was to draw attention to the salience of the homeplace for African Americans and to catalyze a discourse on the utility of these ideas for therapy practices involving African American clients. However, we do acknowledge the fact that, although the homeplace has distinct features and cultural meanings, depending on the ethnic/racial group being considered, there are aspects of it that undeniably have universal relevance and potential clinical utility for clients of all backgrounds (Gilbert, 1998; Lahiri, 1999; Perkins et al., 2002).
Building on homeplace perspectives offered by hooks (1990) and others, as well as our ethnographic and clinical research with African American families in urban and rural settings, we discussed two aspects of the homeplace that are relevant for therapists-schisms in communication about the importance of the homeplace, and homeplace disruption and yearning. The discussion of schisms illustrates the problems therapists and some African American clients may have in conveying the meaning of house and home to one another, and how miscommunications about these issues may challenge clients’ sense of ethnic/racial identity, groundedness, safety, and loyalty to kin. In addition, the experiences of David and Brenda, which respectively represent profound and modest homeplace disruptions, depict the challenges individuals experience when they lose their connection to the homeplace, and illustrate the steps taken by therapists to resolve these challenges by creating or reintegrating these clients into a homeplace.
It should be clear from our discussion that having physical, emotional, and social connections to a homeplace can be important to the mental health of African Americans. The homeplace is not just a physical structure that can be improved by paint or replaced with a housing voucher. It is not just a group of people that one visits during the holidays. And, it is not a place of extreme chaos and confusion that leaves one worse off for having visited. In the best of situations, the homeplace is a physical space with a tangible form (e.g., house) where one finds warmth and nourishment, a place one learns to be oneself and be better than you thought you could be, a place to learn how to battle racism, oppression, and other -isms, and a place to replenish one’s self-worth and dignity. The homeplace is tied to a location, and frequently a physical structure, that becomes imbued with memories of restoration. For many, it is life’s anchor. With these features of the homeplace in mind, it is perhaps useful for therapists to seek understandings of clients’ overt and subtle connections to homeplace and help them, when indicated, foster reconnections or create substitute homeplaces to promote healthy functioning.
PROCESSES FOR INTEGRATING HOMEPLACE INTO MARRIAGE AND FAMILY THERAPY PRACTICES
African Americans are often strangers in an alien land of therapists, many of whom have not received or are not invested in training about African American cultural realities, of which homeplace is but one entity (Holliday & Holmes, 2003; Vera, Doryliz, & Alegria, 2003; Vivero & Jenkins, 1999). We believe that therapists who lack knowledge and understanding about cultural realities and, the homeplace, in particular, can become more effective in working with African Americans by engaging in the following four steps: (a) Developing a critical consciousness through exploration of one’s own cultural, economic, gender, and political identities in relation to one’s clients; (b) therapeutically approaching African Americans using a di-unital or “both/and” framework; (c) therapeutically approaching African Americans using a communal framework; and (d) socializing clients to develop their own critical consciousness and understand the cultural role and meaning of homeplace in their lives.
The steps we propose are hierarchical; the success of each subsequent step is predicated on mastery of the preceding one. Taken together, these four steps detail a method for professionals to incorporate homeplace, an essential cultural reality for many African Americans, into therapy. The first step requires self-exploration and analysis on the part of treating clinicians; the second and third require the assumption of specific therapeutic approaches when working with clients; and, the forth involves activities that therapists directly engage in with clients. We discuss each step in greater detail below.
Developing the Counselor’s or Therapist’s Critical Consciousness
To help many African Americans effectively, therapists themselves must first engage in a process to socialize their own critical consciousness (Potts & Watts, 2003; Watts & Abdul-Adil, 1997; Watts, Abdul-Adil, & Pratt, 2002). Critical consciousness involves the development of awareness, knowledge, and skills about how social and institutional politics around one’s own social status influence one’s existence, identity, and social interactions.
The process of therapists socializing their critical consciousness begins with a thorough exploration of their own racial, economic, gender, and political histories, tensions, and resolution of those tensions in relation to their clients’ racial, gender, economic, and political histories. For example, socialization of critical consciousness about race involves learning about racial, ethnic, and cultural differences, present-day and past discrimination, personal and group privilege, and the emotional impact of these dynamics on both the targets and the beneficiaries of racism and discrimination. Socialization of critical consciousness about economics entails understanding how systemic poverty restricts social mobility for many, how present day manifestations of American capitalism insulates a few very rich people while denigrating those who are impoverished, and how the guise of upward mobility serves to placate, motivate, and/or demoralize individuals (Potts & Watts, 2003).
Therapists who have actively engaged in socializing their critical consciousness approach therapy with a heightened awareness of subtle nuances of their impact on the therapeutic process. For example, through the process socializing her critical consciousness about race, an African American female therapist progressed from understanding that her “natural twisties” hair style is a personal statement, to understanding how her hair style might adversely affect some African American parents’ willingness to engage in therapy with her because her hairstyle signals an unconventional or revolutionary orientation. Moreover, through the process she also came to understand that her hair style might positively affect other African American parents’ willingness to engage in therapy because her hairstyle signals a high degree of comfort with her racial and cultural uniqueness.
In another situation, a Caucasian therapist increased his level of socialization of his critical consciousness about race by progressing through three stages-he moved from thinking that it is sufficient for him to empathize about the existence of racism if his African American clients bring it up, to being conscious on a daily basis of the myriad of ways in which he benefits from the privilege of being white in America, to intervening with others to equalize said benefits for all individuals irrespective of color, and finally to initiating discussions of issues of race, culture, and ethnicity consciousness with all of his clients.
Questions therapists may ask of themselves to facilitate their socialization of critical consciousness include: In what ways have my and my ancestors’ accomplishments benefited others and/or been at others’ expense? In what ways have my ancestors used race, economics, gender, and politics to foster both past and present day disparities? In what ways do I fulfill my moral obligation to correct current social inequities? Are these ways meaningful to those who have been wronged or just meaningful to me? How do I demonstrate callousness either overtly (e.g., demanding that those without boots or straps pull themselves up by their bootstraps) or covertly (e.g., championing more materials for “gifted” students while ignoring the needs of students who lag behind)? In what ways do my reactions of fear, avoidance, and devaluation of this process derail my progress towards socializing my critical consciousness? In what ways do my colleagues provide me adequate support and challenge me to deepen commitment to socializing my critical consciousness?
Socializing one’s critical consciousness is a tremendous undertaking because it requires a process of self-reflection, self-critique, and self-discovery of one’s privileges, and the impact of those privileges on others, which leads to humiliating and humbling realizations about the self. Who among us would find exploring our racial, cultural, and economic identity histories and dynamics a comfortable experience? Nonetheless, we argue that it is a critical first step in successfully incorporating the homeplace into MFT practices with African American clients.
Therapeutically Approaching African Americans Using a “Both/And” Framework
The second step in the homeplace integration hierarchy involves the therapist approaching African American clients using a di-unital or “both/and” framework. Researchers and clinicians who operate from a cultural psychology perspective have documented the efficacy of maintaining a both/and orientation when engaging in psychological assessments, diagnosis, or interventions with African American clients (Nobles, 1991).
Stevenson (2003) describes the both/and therapeutic approach as one that helps clients to explore what is both good about their bad experiences and bad about their good experiences. A both/and orientation assumes that opposing dynamics happen to and coexist within everyone and should be acknowledged as natural aspects of everyday life. To acknowledge these dynamics is to challenge the “either/or” dichotomy that therapists have come to accept so easily as the way to judge behavior. Comparatively speaking, clinicians who have both/and rather than either/or orientations would shy away from making a diagnosis of a client using normal/abnormal, past/present, smart/dull, or treatment/assessment dichotomies.
Working with African American clients using a both/and framework means to approach African Americans with an understanding of the benefits of their burdens and an understanding of the burdens of their benefits-that is, going beyond a “feel-good” show and tell in therapy. Using this approach, therapists provide a space for clients to discuss their burdens and benefits within the strengths-inclusive framework, not within the traditional context of pathology. For example, in Brenda’s case, a both/and therapeutic approach would interpret her repetitive eating of fast food as both a destructive behavior and an efficient way to vivify her connection to and the safety she derives from her family. For David, his desire to resume parenting of his younger siblings is interpreted di-unitally as his desire to be useful, connected, and of value, while at the same time serving to make him vulnerable to accusations of being a predator, or worse yet, interpreted as evidence that he is a predator.
Furthermore, within this framework, Brenda would be encouraged to explore how being her family’s “academic star” was accompanied by isolation and sacrifices to her social development, and David, to voice his concern about resuming the burden of “parenting” his younger sisters and his hope to regain a rare source of esteem given his context of poor academic performance, rejection by his mother, being discriminated against, and having no discernable athletic or recreational skills. Hence, the incorporation of a therapeutic approach to working with African Americans using a both/and framework allows for the inclusion of a reasoned, integrated benefits and burdens approach to issues.
Therapeutically Approaching African Americans Using a Communal Framework
In addition to approaching African Americans by using a both/and perspective about clients’ experiences, therapists should also approach client’s using a communal framework. In tandem with hooks’ (1990) ideas about African Americans and the homeplace, a communal framework posits that the client’s experience is extended beyond immediate family members and that collective social identity experiences define one’s sense of self as much as one’s personal experiences and interpretations (Mead, 1956). Stated another way, “what the group thinks of me influences how I think of me.” Using the case of David as an example, teachers, peers, and family perceptions of him as a predator greatly contribute to how he frames his sense of self. This is particularly true in the absence of others who relate to him as a human being who struggles to become someone of value. So for David, a communal perspective would appreciate these perceptions and their impact.
In Brenda’s case, the use of a communal framework would facilitate an understanding of the impact of her extensive family and friend network who seem to expect her to be carefree-unfettered by isolation, classism, racism, or gender discrimination. Both David’s and Brenda’s psychological challenges seemed to be based on a conflict between the meaning and roles defined by collective/extended homeplace and their individual definitions of self. Hence, work in therapy for both David and Brenda would address the creation/re-creation of a group of supportive kin in combination with helping each client process his or her family’s (however family is communally defined) current rejection and experiences.
Helping Clients to Socialize their Critical Consciousness
After socializing his or her own critical consciousness and adopting therapeutic approaches that include di-unital and communal frameworks, the therapist is primed to help his or her African American clients to socialize their own critical consciousness. This is akin to teaching an individual how to fish as opposed to showing them where the fish are. Much like the process of socialization that the counselor or therapist goes through in step one of the process, the client must be guided through a process of subtle and blatant awareness, deconstruction, and interpretation of the politics and consequences of being African American in a culturally diverse, economically polarized and often racially contentious society. The anomie and nihilism of many African Americans’ existence requires critical cultural consciousness not just an examination of one’s mental status.
One way to help the development of clients’ critical consciousness socialization is for therapists to recognize that reconnection to homeplace may include concrete events and experiences, but that it also includes a reconnection to deeper layers of cultural meaning. As such, the recollection and reconnection process can be about reclaiming the cultural meanings of less tangible homeplace moments. How therapists help clients tie together cultural elements of one’s homeplace and the relationship of these elements to the client’s current worldview and identity orientation is equally important in going beyond the accepted call of clinical duty.
Therapists can help clients to reach deeper layers by igniting and bolstering their clients to appreciate their collective cultural as well as individual family histories. This involves incorporating multiple family members’ telling of stories about people, personalities, and coping strategies outside of their proximal kin network (e.g., a parent’s former coworker). It also involves telling stories about how these people managed racial and economic hardship. It does not matter if the racial or economic coping strategies from these persons would now be considered moribund. What matters in the recapturing of homeplace is for clients and their families to know that they belong to a larger network of worldviews that approached these hardships in a particular cultural way. By knowing, embracing, and examining these ways, clients can say, “I am not alone. I do not exist by myself, but I am part of a larger network of resilient people who, for better or worse, are a part of my existence.”
Reconnection to the homeplace in the context of critical cultural consciousness has the potential for several emotional health benefits of which we will mention two. One benefit is the challenge and reduction of clients’ self-doubt about the importance of one’s homeplace. Because clients do not exist alone, their increased authentic self and extended self-knowledge belongs to them. Self-doubt in a self-knowledge paradigm is a fate worse than death (Myers, 1988), because without a ground of being, one cannot protect oneself from attacks whether they be emotional, cultural, or economic.
In addition to reducing self-doubt, a greater attachment to the cultural meanings of homeplace has the potential to increase resistance skills for clients when they feel that their cultural existence is being dehumanized by others across the macro-structural landscape (e.g., friends, employers, and media). To know when one is being dehumanized and to combat it, actively, rather than passively, and in healthy ways, is a therapeutic coup, bar none.
Therapists also can further African American clients’ reconnection to the deeper cultural meanings of homeplace by bringing others’ historical stories or biographies (e.g., bell hooks) of the homeplace to the present and seeing if the processes depicted in these stories can be replicated not only at home, but in a variety of contexts, such as church, school, and neighborhood. This process of generalization across settings requires work to identify whom clients can encourage and enlist to keep the deeper, layered historical stories alive and meaningful. Supporting children’s school projects to include these cultural stories of family or using Kwanzaa as a place to retell these stories are only two examples of rituals for therapists to consider in generalizing the “how to fish” process.
In summary, we have outlined different ways in which therapists can help families reclaim homeplace and how families can help themselves maintain this process outside of the therapeutic sessions. Given the multilayered effects resulting from schisms in communicating about the homeplace or disrupted connections to homeplace, the development of critical consciousness socialization in clients and their families has the therapeutic potential to help the client reconnect with and/or recreate the sense that his or her experiential reality of the homeplace (e.g., culture, language, interpersonal style, worldview orientation, hopes and dreams) is appreciated by self and select others, if not by everyone. How successful therapists are at establishing a therapeutic context to “battle” with clients so that they can adopt, reject, and forge new connections to homeplace is predicated on their ability to: (a) Develop their own critical consciousness by exploring one’s own cultural, economic, gender, and political identities in relation to the clients they serve; (b) therapeutically approach African Americans using a both/and strengths-based framework; (c) therapeutically approach African Americans using a communal framework; and (d) help clients socialize their own critical consciousness about the generative cultural meaning and healing aspects of homeplace reconnection.
The creation of or reconnection to a homeplace is more than a moment and more than a set of experiences for African Americans. The homeplace is intensely personal and can be experienced differentially among African Americans depending on a variety of factors including gender, socioeconomic status, geographic region of residence, or religious affiliation. Nonetheless, the homeplace is also a journey of reclaiming of self in individual and extended forms and in societal and cultural forms. Regardless of individual differences in the pathways and outcomes of the homeplace journey, it is a reclaiming that is therapeutically important for many African Americans.
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Linda M. Burton
The Pennsylvania State University
University of Pennsylvania
Sherri Lawson Clark
The Pennsylvania State University
Linda M. Burton, PhD, and Sherri Lawson, PhD, Center for Human Development and Family Research in Diverse Contexts, The Pennsylvania State University; Howard Stevenson, PhD, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania; Donna-Marie Winn, PhD, Center for Child and Family Policy, Sanford Institute, Duke University.
We gratefully acknowledge the funders of the ethnographic component of Welfare, Children, and Families: A Three-City Study including: The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Social Security Administration; The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation; the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; The W. K. Kellogg Foundation; and The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. We extend special thanks to our 210-member ethnographic team (see project website http://www.jhu.edu/~welfare) and, particularly the Pennsylvania State University team who provided the infrastructure, organization, and data management for the multisite ethnography. Most importantly we thank the families who have graciously participated in the project and have given us access to their lives.
Address correspondence to Linda M. Burton Center for Human Development and Family Research in Diverse Contexts, 106 Henderson Human Development Bldg., The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, 16802. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Copyright American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Oct 2004
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