Raised by his grandparents on a sharecropper's farm in rural Alabama, Lawrence E. Gary grew up in a community where poverty was widespread. But that experience provided the basis for much of the scholarly research Gary directs today.
"We did not think of ourselves as poor or disadvantaged," said Gary. "As a people we had developed a king od social support system to assist us in time of need. My parents were not in a position to raise me, so I was raised by my grandparents and there were always uncles, aunts and cousins to spend time with me."
Now an associate professor and director of the Howard University Institute for Urban Affairs, Gary is editor-in-chief of and contributing aughor to a major study on mental health in the black community.
The book, "Mental Health, A Challenge to the Black Community," argues that few mental health professionals understand the kinds of unofficial support networks that exist in the black community, such as the extended family network that helped sustain Gary as a child in Alabama.
Since those informal networks are vital to the mental health of many black people, yet are often ignored in research, mental health studies of black people are replate with misconceptions and inaccuracies, believes Gary.
"How many mental health professionals really understand the role of the black church?" he asked.
"Informal groups and voluntary associations such as bars, barbershops, peer groups, gangs and storefront churches make up the social network of the black community," he writes in one chapter.
Yet "little research has been done to determine the significance of social networks in the black community and most mental health workers do not integrate the social support systems with treatment plans when working with black clients."
Gary, who holds a B.S. degree from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, assembled 15 black mental health professionals for his study of mental health in the black community.
"I was interested in writers who would focus not only on the negatives but also on the strengths of black people and the positive aspects of their mental health," Gary wrote in the preface to the book.
A native of Union Springs, Ala., Gary is very much the product of the informal black cummunity support network that now figures so prominently in his research. It was an aunt, he said, who demonstrated to him the importance of an education and who supported him in his initial years in school.
"She hadn't been any farther in school than the sixth grade, but she could read and write. In those days that was a status symbol in the community and in the church," he said.
"You could be in school from kindergarten through 12th grade then and never be in class with a white person. I was protected from a lot of racism. No one was ever able to mess with my mind. No one was ever able to tell me I couldn't be somebody."
One teacher taught children ranging from grades one through eight, Gary said, "so the smart children had to help the slower ones and the older children had to help the younger ones, and that was before they had federal grants."
Later, at Tuskegee a network of professors supported him when he left for Ann Arbor to pursue his doctoral studies. In addition, Gary said, there were many night telephone calls to Alabama to discuss a graduate school problem with a former Tuskegee professor.
At Michigan, one of his first acts was to seek out a black church "that I could relate to," Gary said.
One major thrust of his research now is to understand how support systems are functioning for black people. "The therapist is not the answer to everyone's problems. We have to talk up the importance of having friends," he believes.
Not only has most research to date ignored the important informal support networks, says Gary, but it has also concentrated unduly in low income blacks, one parent families, "captive subjects such as prisoners, mental health patients and school children," and "tended to assume a uniformity of the black experience."
Arguing that blacks are under-represented in the field of mental health research, Gary says, "The ideology of the principal investigator is going to affect the findings." Many researchers studying the black community are whites from such prestigious institutions as Harvard, Yale or the University of Chicago, Gary points out.
Gary and Dionne J. Jones, a research associate at Howard University Mental Health and Development Center, report in the first of the book's 14 chapters that "black social and behavioral scientists, and a number of their white colleagues, are recognizing the need to develop definitions of mental health for black people. There scientists agree that white behavior as a normative standard for all black people should be rejected."
The bool also addresses such issues as the problems of black adolescents, families, old people, children, the ecology of the black community and the black adult in the work force.
The migration from the rural South to the urban North and the accompanying decline in influence of both the extended family and the black church are discussed in the book. Despite that decline, the authors maintain, both institutions remain viable and vital to the well-being of the black community.
"The extended family system aside, no other black community setting comes close to matching the black religious ones for bringing together connection, gratification and purposeful action for community gain," write Thomas A. Gordon, director of an early childhood program at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, and Norman L. Jones, a psychologist at the same program, in a chapter on the social network in the black community.
"The church lifted the spirit, it encouraged participation and release; it provided identity with powers larger than oneself; it directed the energies and talents of believers into constructive work. Healthy people need to feel a part of some power larger than themselves; the need to be productive and enjoy their relations and accomplishments."
At 39, Lawrence Gary is light years away from his childhood in Union Springs, in one sense, but in another it is still very much with him.
He and his wife and three children live in a racially integrated, middle class neighborhood in Silver Spring where, he says, he enjoys reading, writing, cooking, swimming and amateur carpentry. Gary has traveled abroad extensively, and last October was of a member of a U.S. delegation that toured the People's Republic of China.
Gary makes a point of "busing my children to a black church," St. Paul's A.M.E. Church on upper 14th Street on Sundays. "I want my kids to have the experience of a black church, and they love it," he said. "They love the people and the singing."
Although his children attend integrated schools in the predominantly white Monthomery County school system, Gary said he and his wife have brought them up to be conscious of their black heritage.Every summer Gary returns with his family to Alabama to visit his grandparents in Birmingham and other relatives in Union Springs.
"Our family church and our family cemetery is in Union Springs. I want my children to know about them. I want them to know how important it is to have a cultural base."