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The Survival and Adaptation of the African American Family Mignonette Nunn Keller, PhD Summary of Dr. Keller’s presentation at the CFC Summer Conference in 2021

Authored by Don Targonski, M.S.W.

“How does a slave develop a self in an oppressive dehumanizing system forcing him into a no-self position?” a question posed by Murray Bowen, MD was addressed in the conference “The Survival and Adaptation of the African American Family”, a presentation by Mignonette Nunn Keller, PhD. at the Center for Family Consultation, July 23, 2021.  Bowen’s conceptualization of chronic anxiety and “differentiation of self” traced the early years of Aaron Guice, his family experiences with two slave owners, and his relationships with his second owner’s family.  Aaron Guice was sold at approximately age 14 to his second owner.  He was able to exercise principled oriented decisions in delaying marriage and children, being able to accept both his black and white heritage and continuing to have positive relationships with both black and white family members.  From this writer’s perspective, some positive external experiences and his being a free spirit and having some distance from the emotional system he grew in enabled him to develop sufficient “self” to withstand the stresses and losses he experienced growing up.

The data collection for Keller’s original study (Family Systems, 2006), included four families of black and white heritage with a common background.  Aaron Guice was part of the original study. In discussing Guice, Keller focused on him and his family, and his second owner and his family.  Keller obtained information from oral history and extensive archival research.  Data for each family was collected using a family diagram supplemented by a semi-structured questionnaire

Aaron Carr was Aaron Guice’s biological father (and first slave owner).  He impregnated his wife and a house servant during the same period.  The house servant gave birth to Aaron and his wife gave birth to a daughter.  The two children grew up in the same household and were not separated until early to middle adolescence.  Their closeness resulted in Aaron’s sale to Thomas Guice, a family friend. This separated Aaron Guice permanently from his mother, biological father and half-sister.  His sale came with the understanding that he would continue to function as a house servant.  At the time of his sale, Aaron was permitted to select a wife, Charlotte Williams, who was part of a group of female slaves being auctioned.  He was also allowed to spend his last night with his mother, rather than in a holding area with others being sold.   Aaron Guice and Charlotte were taken to the Guice plantation in Alabama, where they remained for roughly fifteen years but did not marry, until their emancipation.

After his emancipation, Aaron Guice adopted the surname of his second owner and the given name of his first owner and biological father.  He maintained contact with the Caucasian Guices whom he saw as family.  He and Charlotte married in 1866.  Their first child of eleven children was born in 1867.

Differentiation of self is reflected in an individual’s ability to define a life course using clear principles and goals.  Aaron’s level of functioning lessened the impact of challenges he encountered throughout his life.  His and Charlotte’s actions, including not marrying or having children while enslaved, reflected principled and goal-directed positions on important issues.

Having learned to read immediately after slaves were freed, Aaron believed everyone should have access to educational opportunities.  He ensured this by giving land to build the first school in the community for black children and to provide lodging for a black educator to instruct the students.

His progeny also demonstrated the strengths that characterized Aaron’s functioning.  His sixth child born in 1876, also acquired property and kept it during the Depression.  Several of his descendants became educators in public schools and many others owned land and small businesses.

Dr. Keller has demonstrated in her research how a slave burdened by a dehumanizing system rises above the seemingly impossible obstacles to achieve a sense of self capable of fortitude and resilience.  This resulted in Aaron Guice becoming a highly functioning individual.  Guided by Bowen’s understanding of chronic anxiety and differentiation of self Dr. Keller examines the life course of Aaron Guice, his fortunate experience of a caring, supportive relationship with his mother from birth to mid-adolescence and his own determination to follow his own principles and goals.  Dr. Keller also shows how triangles occurred between Aaron Guice and his enslaver and the multigenerational trends in his family.  For example, based on factual family data, distance and child focus were the primary mechanisms used to absorb the anxiety and undifferentiation in the family system.  Additional information regarding the life course of members of Aaron’s family of origin including his mother, biological father, the wife and daughter of the slave owner provide a deeper understanding of the emotional process in the master- slave relationship.

Frederick Douglas, orator, abolitionist, editor, author and advisor to presidents was included in the presentation.

In summary Dr. Keller states “that while white families have provided the norms for evaluating families in American society, this investigation and similar studies provide the basis for an increased understanding of factors influencing the emotional, social, and physical functioning among family members in black as well as white families.  This study has also demonstrated the potential for employing Bowen theory in empirical family research.” (Keller 2020, 251).


Keller, Mignonette Nunn and Noone, Robert J. Handbook of Bowen Family Systems Theory and Research Methods. New York: Rutledge, 2020.

Keller, Mignonette Nunn, “A Case Study: Efforts Toward Differentiation Self Among Slaves and Their Descendants.” Family Systems, Volume 7, Number 2, 2006. Pages 103-121

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