Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Mental illness for Freedom

Following up from last week’s lecture, I thought it was pretty absurd that wanting to be free could constitute an individual having a mental disorder. The term "Droptephelia" did not actually exist on Google, but I did find the term “Drapetomania”, which is what I think Professor McKinney was referring too. The disorder was coined by an American doctor named Samuel Cartwright in 1851. When Cartwright first described the disorder he stated that it was, “unknown to our medical authorities [...] yet known by our planters and overseers” emphasizing the point that only Negros could be subject to this disease, since the planters and overseers (who are white) bear witness to this first hand ( According to Cartwright, the disorder was a direct result from masters becoming too friendly or familiar with their slaves, thus treating them as equals. The disease caused the enslaved individual to run away from his or her service. However, as with any disease there was a cure, and if the medical procedures were followed correctly, the issues of having Negros neglect their duties could be prevented. Dr. Cartwright claimed that the only way to rid a Negro of this disease was to severely beat the individual. In his book, Disease and Peculiarities of the Negro Race, Cartwright contests, “If any one, or more of them at a time are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer […] they should be punished until they fall into a submissive state which was intended for them to occupy […] they are to be kept in that state and treated like children to prevent and cure them from running away” (  Cartwright supports his argument for why this disease must be dealt with immediately with biblical word. He argued that it is rule in the bible that slaves obey their masters, and be punished if they fail to follow the protocol ( In his book, Dr. Cartwright also makes a reference to the white males stating that they had a moral obligation to themselves to make sure their slaves are always “submissive-knee benders” because it is the power that God bestowed upon them (
There was another mental disorder within the slave race known as Dysaethesia Aethiopica, which was also coined by Cartwright. This disorder was one of pure laziness, affected the mind and body, and was seen mostly in Negros that had "too much" freedom for their own good ( He defined this disease as a, “partial insensibility of the skin[…]as to be like a person half asleep, that is with difficulty aroused and kept awake[…]accompanied with signs or lesions on the body discoverable to the medical observer” ( Once again the cure for this was violent whippings and beatings. It is absurd how brainwashed people had become with the ideas of racism to believe that signs of laziness showed on the skin. It makes no sense and there was no scientific proof to back this claim up. Cartwright’s discovery of such diseases serves as an example of scientific racism, which is an example of pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is a form of scientific hypothesis or techniques that lack valid reason or support.
Professor McKinney also briefly mentioned in class the system of cataloging psychological disorders, known as the DSM. The model is simply a mode of classification that is used to diagnosis individuals with psychiatric disorders, and has been in development for centuries. Drapetomania was included in the DSM model back in the 19th Century and was categorized as a psychiatric disorder of impulsive behavior.

Heres a link to more information on Drapetomania


  1. I agree that this idea of "drapetomania" is absurd. This idea exemplifies just how potent the institution of slavery was. Not only did slavery influence the thinking of whites, but it spread to even the sciences. One part that really struck me was the colored hospitals. The number of African Americans admitted into the hospital was questionable. Surely, all of these African Americans were not mentally unstable. Instead, it seemed to be a way to get free labor out of the African American men. Finally, the issue of the deaf mental hospital accused of rape really demonstrated how ignorant the white people were. It's not that hard to determine whether someone is deaf or if they are retarded. Surely, the whites could have known that the deaf man could not hear.

  2. It amazes me how far slaveowners were willing to go to prove that they were "good owners" or that they were innocent victims. If a slave ran away, it wasn't because the slaveowners were bad owners, but because the slave had a disease that caused them to run away. If a slave desired freedom, they weren't considered normal human beings, who in reality all want freedom, but were labeled as mentally ill. And if a slave wanted to find their family or no longer work for a white person after being emancipated, they weren't taking advantage of their freedom, they were just plain lazy. Not only did white people believe that they needed to own a slave to prove their "whiteness," but they also needed to find ways to prove that anything that went astray from their plans was not their fault. So in every case, the slaveowners were perfect and the slaves were flawed. It's sickening to think that slaveowners felt the need to create disorders to justify the way that they treated slaves and even more sickening that they only "treatment" they could come up with was to beat the slaves more. Memphis, this was really good research and a good article. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. I think "Drapetomania" is simply another way in which strongly opinionated white oppressors justified the institution of slavery. Science, wrongly seen by many as truth or unarguable fact, was used to condone or to rationalize the American slave trade and American slavery since its origins. Craniometry and physical anthropology were used to provide scientific support for claims that black men’s skulls (and therefore brains) were smaller than their white male counterparts. Just another example of how pervasive science can be in establishing racism and race thinking. If one needed another line of defense in supporting their claim that black skinned individuals were inferior, the field of psychological pseudoscience could provide that. Giving slaves a unique psychological disorder was aimed to invalidate their desire to, in basic terms, be free. This disease is simply a tool used by those who are comfortable using science to support the inhumane treatment of another human and to visualize their rebellious slaves as mentally ill. Drapetomania is a haunting example of the combined power of race thinking and scientific “facts.”