African-American expression, history, slavery, and the “psychiatric survivor” writing of memoir

Check out this YouTube done by a former professor of mine:

The part I want to draw your attention to is at the end. Note where Dr. Boyer discusses the differences in black vocal expression and white expression of music. He states the use of simpler scales, saying that complex scales are not necessary. He says that the more important aspects are not complex scales, but other expressive elements. He states that black people of African descent usually produce their voices differently from whites of European extraction. Whites usually speak more nasally, seemingly from the front of the mouth, while black voices sound more soft because the vocal sound is produced differently. You can see how he changed his voice to mimic the white voice, then back to the softer black voice, pointing out the difference. He states that this difference is tone quality is an essential element of Gospel music.

He also states the nature of personal expression. That you put yourself into it. I can look back upon my schooling, when I was learning memoir, and realize that when I started out, my writing was stiff and unemotional. This is because I saw writing as a mathematical puzzle. Later, I realized that writing is something you read aloud, that you perform, that you say and must express in a way that is convincing. So I must write convincingly, too.

The Torah is read, or, rather, chanted aloud.

Boyer suggests that personalization is so deeply ingrained in the black music experience that it cannot be separate from it. I wonder how much of this is history, that is, historical memory.

The Seder prayers are spoken and sung aloud, and these are stories passed on from generation to generation.

Check out this other YouTube where Boyer explains the history of the slaves usage of music:

Wicked amazing, eh?

Thinking about historical memory and slavery, and also, actual memory, we who were incarcerated in mental hospitals also have memory of being locked up in horrible places. How did we survive being locked up?

Sometimes, we smoked cigarettes to pass the time. We joked around. We laughed about the staff. Some of our jokes were pretty bad ones, I admit. We shared stories. We even sang. Some patients wrote poems.

The night I spent in restraints, I sang for most of the night. I sang German lieders. I sang Amazing Grace. Then I said the Shema. That is a Jewish prayer. It’s very short and simple. Just one sentence.

Later, years later, the staff decided that certain activities calmed us. I was handed a pencil and a notebook (not a spiral one) and told I could write if I wanted. They noticed this calmed me so I was finally encouraged to write. Ah, that, they realized, would silence me and keep me out of trouble. Little did they know I was writing down every little thing that happened. My words gave me power.  I saved those notebooks. Samson’s hair gave him his power. Little did they know.

We survived those places. We managed, didn’t we? May the walls come tumbling down, and they will someday, because we shall overcome.

4 thoughts on “African-American expression, history, slavery, and the “psychiatric survivor” writing of memoir”

  1. Thanks much, Julie. While I spent a few days, a few times, in solitary confinement in McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA, back in the 1970’s, I very much appreciated how you survived restraints. My home care worker here was raised Jewish and has told me the significance of the Sh’ma.

    As you know, I blog over at and you have recently commented there about my psot regarding the Ruby Rogers Center. The video you provide on this blog is something that we immediately watched, and provides a good example of what we would like to see in community centers, rather than the usual garbage.

    I would add that we should compare the thinking of Daryl Davis, which you can find by googling his name. For example, there is this Wikipedia article but I have not read it:

    I wonder if Mr. Davis and Dr. Horace Boyer have ever had a chance to compare notes. I blogged some time ago about why forced psychiatric drugging is inherently racist, and I would encourage finding that post and sharing it.

    In the meantime, below is a copy of my reply to your comment on my blog post regarding the RR Center:

    Thanks Julie, for your comment! Very few folks have left comments over the last few years on my blog, so any comments shows me that people are viewing this, which feels good. Also, you have used the Ruby Rogers Center!

    My suggestion, if I had a time machine! The RR Center could have looked into independent funding. Even part of its budget could have come from independent sources, such as member donations, grassroots fundraising, small grants. Resist is directly across the street from RR, but I bet no one has thought of walking across the street to Resist?

    It is not too late to raise part of the budget independently, but that time is running out.

    On the big video screen, I would suggest playing any of the hundreds of documentaries available in our field. Playing the Jones/Wineberg videos alone would take many, many hours. Whatever happened to those videos by the way? This pro film maker took hundreds of hours of video at our movement events, perhaps not RR. Unfortunately, the video has disappeared. It ought to be digitized, placed on Youtube or Vimeo, with a creative commons disclaimer allowing open-source editing.

    Then places like RR could view good video, help the movement, and re-capture some of the independent spirit that first drew me to work on the roots of RR back in the late 1970’s.

    By the way, even before I got there, in about 1976, MPLF was doing a bunch of courageous activity. I opened up one of the weekly papers back then, and read about an actual escape. Never did get a name, and the statute of limitations is long past. But you get the idea?

    1. David, I am so happy you came over here. Yep, raised Jewish and 100% on both sides. We’re even directly descended from a famous rabbi. I think he was Polish, but I’m not sure if that part of Poland was in Poland at the time! He was called the Vilna Gaon or something like that. I have no clue how many generations.

      I, too, am a McLean alum. Undecided major. They were the ones who could not decide! That’s where I accomplished all my 190 required credits of Medicare days, so I was promoted to ECT, at taxpayers’ expense. I graduated past that to cognitive despair. I applied to State in 1997, but didn’t get in. That was a good thing, since one never graduates from that. It was very odd that whenever I tried to study, read, and especially write at McLean, they told me to stop!

      I witnessed a few escapes. There seemed to be one about once a month. They’d send out Security. Once I was riding the Security van just for transit, not as “patient,” and heard them say the patient was “dangerous.” I hated that. In secret, I cheered the patient on. I wasn’t even aware of the Movement then.


  2. Well the psychiatrist has said: “forget when you were forced into the psychiatric hospital”.
    And was forget in a wide sense: to forget what they done to me; to stop asking questions; to stop trying to get proofs (of this and that); stop asking to compare what i said with the facts. And… go to regular “brain washing sessions” done by health professionals. That they know are “placebo-all-the-way”… but keep to listen/watch us… so they can report back to the psychiatrist. I ended that cycle. Enough is enough.

    So, forget and forgive?
    While they keep doing the same to others, for decades??
    Remember what was done to you. Help others to break the cycle.

    1. Precisely. I, too, was told to forget all about what happened. That it was nothing. That no one cares. Or even told it did not happen. However, we must tell this story, our very precious and essential stories that truly matter, and keep on telling these stories, so that history will not repeat itself.

Feedback and comments welcome!