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Understanding Black Mental, Emotional Health With Ntu Theory




Since the Association of Black Psychologists began 50 years ago, we have been working towards developing an understanding of the Black psyche. Defining mental/psychological, emotional, and spiritual health for Black people is an essential part of this process. Living in a society that devalues, demeans, and demonizes who you are requires an understanding of the emotional wounds created by this experience. There is an assembly of African American/Black psychologists who have sought to understand what mental health looks like for Black people.

In this article, I will discuss the foundations of mental health according to the Ntu theory, developed by two past presidents of the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi), Dr. Fred Phillips and Dr. Kevin Mwata Washington.

Ntu is an African concept that describes a universal, unifying force that underlies all existence. It is grounded in core principles of ancient African and African-centered world views. It is a philosophical belief system that guides and assists people to become balanced, unified, and whole; that is, in alignment with the divinely-governed natural order of the universe. The basic principles of Ntu are harmony, balance, interconnectedness, cultural awareness and authenticity. African American persons, families, and communities are invited to consider Ntu’s basic principles. In actuality, we believe all people could benefit from interrogating and adopting Ntu principles.

Principles of Ntu:

Being in HARMONY means living (steering) your life while understanding that divine forces are at play, which dynamically influence what directions and pathways you will traverse over the course of your life. To the extent that Black people are in harmony, we are accurately processing the circumstances of our lives. The “input signals” and meanings are clear and crisp. When you are in harmony with the divinely-governed universe, you are mentally and emotionally sharp. Guidance by the Ntu principle of harmony assists one in directing life’s paths and purposes in an efficient and rewarding manner.

BALANCE is strongly related to harmony and refers to life as a dynamic process of complementary and competing energy fields and forces. Our lives consist of all kinds of complementary relationships and notions (woman/man, sweet/sour, sacrifice/service) and competing demands (responsibility vs. obligation, work vs. family, individual needs vs. collective needs). Our task is to understand and balance these seemingly differential forces in a manner that brings about a unified whole.   

INTERCONNECTEDNESS refers to an acceptance and understanding that we are energetically connected (“spiritness”) to all forces in the universe. We are connected to all life: humans, animals, plants, nature, spirits, and the environments we live in, including the multi-universe. This is not an easy concept to grasp, but consider how you feel when allowing your spirit to truly experience the beauty of new life (childbirth) or the power (majesty) of the ocean. Have you ever been with a group of people that you did not know, but felt deeply connected to while witnessing an emotional event, like a concert or a funeral? That’s the experience of Ntu.

CULTURAL AWARENESS is knowing who you are and how you fit in society at large and within the Black community. Understanding the forces that challenge your positive feelings about yourself and choosing to counter them with genuine self-love, Black joy and African pride is driven by one’s cultural awareness and consciousness. Dr. Wade Nobles, co-founder and past president of ABPsi, notes that the challenge of cultural awareness is to decolonize our minds and affirm our Being (Africanity). This requires that we have knowledge of racism and prejudices and how they operate to undermine our self-esteem and our Africanity, that which gives us a true sense of dignity and worth.

AUTHENTICITY refers to our ability to be “real” with ourselves and others.  This requires us to allow ourselves to know who we are and what is really important to us. Many of us adapt to what others think we should be as opposed to checking in with ourselves to understand what is really important to us, how we want to be, what we want to do, and what we want to have in this world. Being authentic allows us to be both spontaneous and persistent. Through authenticity, we trust ourselves enough to respond to events in an effortless manner, to be in the moment, to stay true to our purpose, and to keep our eyes on the prize.

In future articles, we will consider how the Ntu principles and other Black psychology ideas and theories can guide and assist Black people to enjoy a greater sense of mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Sandra H. Smith, Ph.D., is a Clinical Training Director for the Therapist-in-Residency Program of The Association of Black Psychologists, Bay Area Chapter (ABPsi-Bay Area). This chapter is committed to providing the Post Newspaper readership with monthly discussions about critical issues in Black Mental Health. The ABPsi-Bay Area is a healing resource. We can be contacted at ( and readers are welcome to join with us at our monthly chapter meeting, every third Saturday at the West Oakland Youth Center from 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.  



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