P&N Person of the Week: John Blackshear
The Prince of Duke, Psychological Past and Present
John Blackshear burst into the emergency room and yelled that he was having a heart attack. It wasn’t the first time this happened.
The hospital took him in right away, connecting electrodes to his chest.
Beep…. Beep…. Beep…
His heart rate was getting faster and faster. Eventually, after realizing that he was indeed still alive, the beeps paced themselves and slowed down.
A nurse said, “You’ve been up here too many times talkin’ ‘bout how you’re having a heart attack. What kind of job you doin’?”
“Psychologist,” Blackshear said.
He recalled she gave him a look and said: “You know better.”
“I was a psychologist who had to swallow my pride and get help,” Blackshear said.
In 2000, Blackshear was acing graduate school—well on his way to obtaining his Ph.D. in clinical psychology and becoming the second black alum in the program at Georgia State. As a grad student, he was already teaching a graduate class. He was feeling like a “badass psychologist” … until the panic began driving him to the ER, convinced he was having a heart attack.
He started changing his life to accommodate the panic attacks, hoping they would go away. He used to love long drives on the highway, but stopped. He avoided roller coasters and airplanes. He was terrified that he would lose his livelihood, which relied on his brain.
“Awakening is a b**ch,” Blackshear said. “You have to confront the things that have been psychologically injuring you.”
He sought treatment. He began thinking back in time and unpacking events in his life that led up to his panic attacks.
Survivor’s guilt lingered from the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing. He was walking back from a Carlos Santana concert, and in between him and the bomb was its sole victim: Alice Hawthorne from Albany, Ga. who he saw die in front of him.
In college, Blackshear lost Tolley, a childhood friend who was shot in the face due to a drug dispute. In high school, he had a white friend named Barry who was in the same “music-lover-nerd-group” and lived in his mostly black neighborhood. Stationed in the military in Alaska, Barry called Blackshear’s family home one day before killing himself. Blackshear was in his freshman year of college—one state away from home. “What would have happened if I answered?”
When he was in 11th grade, he was shot at while DJ-ing for a local high school event. Music— especially Prince, who is tattooed on his forearm and who Blackshear has memorialized on clocks, posters, shirts, candles, snuggies (handmade by his mother-in-law), baby onesies, rubber duckies and even on his 37th birthday cake—was and is a passion of his. Since age 12, Blackshear loved to DJ, but after being shot at, he never DJ’d again.
“It took me a long time to stop looking over my shoulder,” he said.
When he was 10, he was assaulted by a gang after getting lost on the way home and didn’t tell anyone because he felt humiliated. His stepfather — who was himself a victim of abuse, suffered a brain injury while in the military, had explosive anger and was violent towards property— came into his life when Blackshear was 11. Their relationship was “full of friction,” but settled eventually. Blackshear attributed his work ethic to his stepfather. His biological father was a drunk. As a kid, during his father’s visitation days, Blackshear would sit on the porch for eight hours. “I was adamant and didn’t want to move because I didn’t want to miss him.”
Trauma wasn’t just his or his father’s generation.
Blackshear said that if you asked who Clinton Francis Pittman III was in his hometown of Savannah, Ga., no one would know. But if you ask for “Brogie,” people would say, “I know Brogie, he’s crazy.”
Brogie, the Geechee—a Creole language—word for “broken,” was Blackshear’s grandfather on his mother’s side. He was “funny, charming and violent.” Blackshear’s “smart, beautiful and college-educated” grandmother would stay with Brogie for 28 years. During that time, Brogie had six kids with other women and would beat his wife.
In the oversubscribed forensic psychology class he has taught at Duke since 2007, Blackshear told the class about when he took his wife Kimberly on a trip back home to get to know Brogie.
“The first psychopath I got to know was my grandfather,” Blackshear said. “I adored him and loved him so much. He had a beautiful singing whistle where he would do a trill. He sold crabs, worked for the city of Savannah. Someone even said he worked as a welder. He had a secret potion for boiling blue crab, so he was the fun guy who sold crabs. But, he severely abused grandma, punched her in the face and all that stuff.”
Blackshear’s aunt married Tony, an abusive guy like Brogie. On “crab day”, in the kitchen standing next to stacks of money from his side hustle as a loan shark, Brogie saw Tony attacking Blackshear’s aunt. Brogie forced Tony to leave with him, and Tony was never seen again. Tony’s car was still in the driveway and his stuff was still in the house. Brogie sold all of it.
Blackshear asked the class how many of them knew a psychopath. Only a few raised their hands.
“The rest of you are wrong,” Blackshear said. “We all know a psychopath.”
As a child, Blackshear witnessed his 4’10” grandmother getting beat up by his 5’1” grandfather only to hear her come back and say “Junior’s alright.” Junior was her nickname for Brogie. Brogie’s wife and daughters were the only ones who didn’t call him Brogie; his daughters called him Pittman.
“Not only was he broken, he also broke other people,” Blackshear said.
Brogie’s mother was just like him. “Fierce. Horrible.” When Brogie’s wife divorced him, he moved in with his mother. He was 50 years old. Brogie’s mother moved her husband to the spare bedroom and put a twin bed in her room for Brogie—where he stayed until she died.
Brogie’s children went on to “develop physical and mental health issues that were symptoms of people who grew up traumatized.” Blackshear never allowed Brogie to be around his kids.
Growing up, Brogie called Blackshear “Lil n****” and tried to call Blackshear’s son Andwele the same name.
“Listen bro, you will never call any of our children that,” Blackshear said. “Each of them has a really good name.”
Blackshear has six kids. All of the Blackshear kids’ names are of African origin and have specific meanings. Aki, age 22, meaning “victorious warrior” and Afi, age 20, meaning “spiritual teacher” are his two sons from his previous marriage. Amoli, age five, means “grace of God.” Aiyana, age two, means “flower blooming.” Aza Anora, five months old, means “powerful light."
Andwele, age six, means “God brings me.” Kimberly had a molar pregnancy where one of the twins she carried turned out to be a tumor. The tumor in her uterus was diagnosed as a stage four cancer called gestational trophoblastic neoplasia. Kimberly’s chemotherapy treatment was successful and she later became pregnant with Andwele.
Andwele interrupted this story to show me his nails—painted blue, Duke blue.
Kimberly met Blackshear on her first day of work at a mental health agency. The room full of four-foot piles of papers, Blackshear walked in wearing large ill-fitting clothes: a long leather coat, blue shirt and two earrings, she said. She was dating a different professor named John at the time; Blackshear called him “wrong John."
Blackshear’s forensic psychology class
Duke senior Ana Galvez, a student in his class, said that it’s common for him to connect his personal experiences to his course matter.
Clicking through his slides on Hare’s 20 psychopathic traits, Blackshear said, “They attract you to get what they want.” He offered a personal anecdote describing each trait.
Blackshear said that psychopaths can demonstrate affect, but not feel it. “Psychopaths aren’t people who don’t show emotion,” Blackshear said. “[But] the emotion [they show] is not attached to authenticity.”
These personal stories and questions don’t bother Blackshear. He opens up about his life to his class, his dorm, his community and even his colleagues.
An academic dean, adjunct instructor, and clinical and forensic psychologist, Blackshear juggles five to six clients at his private practice on weekends and is a full-time dad who splits the caregiving with his wife who works at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy. His forensic cases take years; he currently has six open murder cases.
Dean Jenny Wood-Crowley met Blackshear last summer when their boss, Dean Arlie Petters, wanted them to work together to start a STEM fellowship called STEM Pathways for Inclusion, Readiness and Excellence Fellows (SPIRE).
“John can’t stay on topic—riddled throughout his narratives are bits about his family, wife and kids,” Wood-Crowley said. “We both are really open about mental health issues... There’s no delineation between work and home.”
Wood-Crowley and Blackshear quickly developed a “work-marriage.”
“I’ll roll my eyes and he’s like ‘stop hounding me,’” Wood-Crowley said. “I remember it was day two [after we met], and I was like, ‘So I have this disorder that makes me crazy sometimes…’ And he was like, ‘Me too.’”
SPIRE was created by Petters and Blackshear because Blackshear grew tired of seeing gifted students, particularly underrepresented populations, shut out of STEM by introductory classes at Duke. He believes in taking talent and producing brilliant students, focusing on excellence, not reputation or selectivity.
As an undergrad at Florida A&M University (FAMU)—a number one public historically black college and university (HBCU) according to U.S. News and World Report—Blackshear observed that the STEM programs wanted all students to excel and achieve mastery, so he thought, why not recreate that kind of community at Duke in the form of SPIRE? From listening to Prince and watching him perform, Blackshear realized that “human genius was unlimited in possibilities when you work toward mastery.”
Considering that it’s not uncommon to hear of a low or failing average for intro STEM courses at Duke, Blackshear wants professors to ask why their course material is not translating.
“A class average of 66 would not have flown [at FAMU],” Blackshear said. “I came from [a college with] less brand name, but high commitment to the intellectual, academic excellence that made us scientists.”
SPIRE’s purpose is to provide academic engagement, support for wellbeing and development in students’ intellectual identities as budding STEM scholars, he said. Blackshear’s message for SPIRE students (and all students): “be who you are.”
He knows how hard it can be to just be yourself.
Certain mentors in Blackshear’s life proved to be pivotal in helping and believing in him so he would go from “little black kid from the hood” to accomplished academic and psychologist.
When Blackshear started elementary school, he tested straight into second grade—around the same time he discovered his love for Prince.
“It was hard to be a non-athletic, heart-on-your-sleeve nerd in the hood, but Prince was accepted,” he said. “Everyone associated Prince with me. You would not believe how many calls, texts and condolences I got when he died… Hey Siri, play “For you” by Prince.”
Blackshear waved his arms like a conductor and singer, marveling at the many voices of Prince that make up the transcendent harmony. While life can sometimes feel overwhelming, it’s like working on one voice and another and another to create a song, he said.
His community was all black, but he was bussed to a 90 percent white school—a part of what he described as “second wave integration.” The first time he experienced institutionalized racism was in fifth grade.
“The teacher was adamant on putting me back,” Blackshear said. “She caused me so much stress that I developed ulcers as an 11-year-old.”
He went from being in the gifted program to the teacher testing him for special needs.
“Like how Duke students perceive academic intro courses as punitive, I perceived the fifth grade lady as a gatekeeper to my future,” Blackshear said.
Luckily, his grandmother—who was college educated and on the board of education—heard about what was going on and got the superintendent involved. Blackshear is an African-American third-generation college student with doctorates and medical degrees in his family, even in his grandmother’s generation. His grandmother moved him to the all-black school across town, and Blackshear slowly regained his confidence in school.
“The women in my family were just incredible,” Blackshear said.
'It started out as it always does: with a girl.'
At the beginning of high school, academics weren’t his priority, but Blackshear liked a girl whose mom had one requirement for him: ‘your grades have to be as good as my daughter’s.’ From that point on, Blackshear started to excel.
In tenth grade, a “little white lady named Ms. Clark” became Blackshear’s champion, opening the door to all sorts of opportunities: he came to Duke to sing for a performance and even started a company—Young Entrepreneurs of Savannah—that put on stage performances for profit and investment.
“When I finished my Ph.D., I went back home and took Ms. Clark to a fancy dinner,” Blackshear said.
Attending college at FAMU—obtaining a bachelor’s in psychology ’93 and master’s in clinical/community psychology ’95—he had the “space to uncover African people’s contribution to civilization without the murky lens of America attached to it.”
His undergraduate research studied racial micro-aggressions using an ambulatory blood pressure monitor which found that the participants’ bodies registered when they were belittled. Another finding was that people who were most or least identified with their culture experienced the least amount of stress.
During those undergraduate years, Blackshear pondered “what it meant to be highly melanated,” taking the time to “reimagine a critical period of trauma.”
“I am a descendent of people who were enslaved, not a descendent of slaves,” he said. “America is too young, too immature and has no right to define me.”
An only child in Savannah, Ga., Blackshear was raised in a culture that included many African traditions like honoring ancestors, attending community congregations and having distinct eating and healing practices. When he had a cold, his grandmother would pick medicinal herbs from her garden instead of sending him to the store to buy Tylenol. He lived in a shotgun house: ten people, two bed, one bath and a straight hallway running down the house to circulate air. He was “privileged compared to his half-brother, poor for White-American standards and okay for Black-American standards.”
When Blackshear’s mom saw that he was struggling, she hired a therapist.
“[My mom] was ahead of her time,” he said.
It was the therapist who encouraged him to take a psychology course in college.
At FAMU, he saw many black Ph.D. candidates in clinical psychology. In between his bachelor’s and master’s at FAMU, he spent six months doing a fellowship for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. After his master’s, he applied to exactly one doctorate program—Georgia State—after being told by classmates that they don’t graduate black people.
“I’m gonna do my thing,” he said.
He was one of four candidates selected from an applicant pool of 450. At Georgia State, he researched high risk young African American men who have sex with men.
“It was my proudest accomplishment,” Blackshear said. “It prepared me to be a father of two gay men.”
He earned his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Georgia State in 2001.
Blackshear has taken on several roles at Duke. He worked at Counseling & Psychological Services from 2001 to 2007. Staff Psychiatrist Holly Rogers described Blackshear as a “deep compassionate soul” and, back in 2003, recommended Blackshear to the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
“She asked if I would join the legal team on a death row case because she believed I would be a good person to open him up,” Blackshear said. “I was able to move his case in a positive direction.”
In the same year, he launched his private practice. The same guy he met on death row 15 years ago still keeps in touch with Blackshear through letters.
“He’s a beautiful man who made a horrific decision with great remorse,” Blackshear said. “The relationship between us gave him the liberty to live purposefully even though he is still on death row.”
This case shaped his professional career as word got around about his success. Now, his job is putting together psychological profiles of people accused of murder.
“I have a visceral reaction to these kinds of people,” Blackshear said. “I see that kind of hustle coming because they’re my grandfather.”
Blackshear eventually overcame his panic attacks.
After suppressing emotional responses for two decades of his life, Blackshear learned that it all eventually leaks out. From 2000 to 2005, he suffered from panic attacks. With professional help, support from loved ones and self-care, Blackshear hasn’t had a panic attack in years.
Beginning in 2012, one of his favorite methods of self-care, other than jamming to Prince religiously, was riding his motorcycle. On most mornings, Blackshear revs up his Yamaha V Star Classic 1100. It’s meditation to him—the wind, attention, present-mindfulness and coordination—as he cruises the roads.