The Radical Black Psychology of Dr. Kobi K. K. Kambon
In the early 1970s, the newly-formed Association of Black Psychologists had quite a job in front of them. Decades of research conducted by the primarily White and Eurocentric scientific establishment had conceptualized any differences between Black and White people through a deficit lens—that is, as signs that Black people were in some way inferior to White people. As we discussed in our first Black History Month post, Black Psychologists can be loosely divided into three groups based on their answer to the question of how to grapple with the legacy of White psychology:
- The traditionalists, who accepted the general theories of the human mind set forth by White psychology but challenged its racial biases;
- The reformers, who strongly critiqued the limits of White psychology while arguing that some of its findings could still apply to the Black mind and experience;
- The radicals, who sought to decentralize whiteness in psychology entirely by conceiving a novel Black psychology founded on African thought and culture.
The traditionalists and reformers are most likely to be cited in modern-day psychological research, at least among the flagship journals in the field. However, the vision of the radicals, as embodied in the transformative work of Dr. Kobi Kambon, presents the most ambitious view of what a truly Black psychology might look like.
Dr. Kobi Kazembe Kalongi Kambon (1943-2018), born Joseph A. Baldwin, was the ninth of ten children, the son of a schoolteacher and a coal miner-turned Baptist minister. The name he chose for himself is derived from the Kikuyu ethnic group of East Africa, and translates as “The Wise and Victorious Warrior of the People” – a legacy his whole life upheld.
Working as an aide in a state psychiatric hospital in the early 1960s, he became fascinated by psychology and resolved to pursue a career in the field. His education was interrupted by the draft in 1965, where he served two years as a medical specialist in Alaska. The GI BIll allowed him to finish his undergraduate work at DePaul University, where he met Dr. Bobby Wright, a lifelong mentor of his (and a towering figure in Black Psychology in his own right!) In 1975, he completed his PhD in Personality and Social Psychology at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
His work hit the ground running with his 1976 article “Black Psychology and Black Personality: Some Issues for Consideration“. In this landmark work, Kambon argued that the nascent field of Black Psychology needed to decide if it was defined as ‘research conducted by Black psychologists’ or ‘research on Black psychology and personality’.
He championed the latter path himself, believing that Black people around the world possess African Self Extension Orientation (ASEO), or an unconscious but deeply felt experience of Blackness. This trait is mirrored on the conscious level by African Self Consciousness (ASC), which reflects acknowledgment of oneself as African alongside commitment to the liberation, improvement, and respect of other African individuals and the larger African community.
Black individuals who are low in African Self Consciousness may suffer from cultural misorientation, a phenomenon where Eurocentric norms are internalized. These norms are harmful not simply because they are racist, but also because they do not match the cultural background of Black individuals, creating an internal state of conflict.
Dr. Kambon’s work investigated these topics with exacting methodological rigor. He developed and carefully validated scales for these constructs, and empirically investigated the links between them. Overall, the body of research examining his theories has typically found that higher levels of ASC are related to higher well-being, fitting the idea that Black individuals who prioritize their shared cultural roots flourish.
Beyond his research, Dr. Kambon also achieved remarkable success in building an academic legacy. In 1982, he was both elected as the President of the Association of Black Psychologists and hired as the chair of the Psychology Department at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), currently the highest-ranked HBCU in the United States. He would remain there for thirty years, recruiting fellow professors to craft a truly African-centered department. Under Dr. Kambon’s leadership, FAMU’s faculty included three Presidents of the Association of Black Psychologists, beginning with Dr. Kambon himself. This concentration of scholarship has proved essential in keeping the radical school of Black Psychology alive. As Dr. Kambon wrote in 2011, three years before his retirement:
“I constantly emphasize that we are creating the closest representation to an African-Centered Psychology Department that our people have had.” (p. 23)
Dr. Kambon is far from the only notable voice in radical Black Psychology; Asa Hilliard, Wade Nobles, Na’im Akbar, Linda James Myers, and Cheryl Grills are other scholars in this tradition worth following. Dr. Kambon stands out, however, as one of the most notable practitioners of constructionism—someone who not only sought to tear down the harmful theories of White Psychology, but also establish new ones in their place. His career is a testament to both rigor and creativity, and serves as a shining example of how African-centered scholarship is necessary to understanding the Black experience in America.
Next week, we’ll discuss the work of Dr. William Cross, an important researcher in the Reform school of Black Psychology. Stay tuned!
Baldwin, J. A. (aka K. Kambon), (1976). Black Psychology and Black Personality: Some issues for consideration. Black Books Bulletin, 4(3), 6-11.
Cokley, K., & Garba. R. (2018). Speaking Truth to power: How Black/African Psychology Changed the Discipline of Psychology. Journal of Black Psychology, 44, 695 – 721
Kambon K. (2011). African-centered critical thinking: A model for African American mental-intellectual liberation. Unpublished manuscript. Sourced from Jamison, D.F. (2016) – see below.
Karenga, M. (1991). Introduction to Black studies. Los Angeles, CA: University of Sankore Press.
Jamison, D. F. (2016). Kobi K. K. Kambon (Joseph A. Baldwin): Portrait of an African-Centered Psychologist. Journal of Black Studies, 47(6), 592–609. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021934716653354
McKenzie, Nichole J. (2012). African/Black psychology: a qualitative investigation of distinguished Black psychologists. Theses and Dissertations, 253. https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/etd/253
Williams, Robert L. (2008). History of the Association of Black Psychologists. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.