I wrote this post a long time ago and forgot to post it….:
I am in a lot of sociology classes right now so excuse me if this sounds like psycho-babble. I was honestly dumbfounded when Professor McKinney told us about Drapetomania and then again when he told us about Dysaethesia Aethiopica. I think it is amazing that we as a society can find “scientific proof" to back up our prejudices. I was also amazed that an entire country could be so naïve about the classification and diagnosis of psychological disorders. Psychiatrists claimed that African Americans were mentally ill if they had “an overwhelming want/need for freedom” and also once they were freed they could run the risk of suffering from a “lack of motivation resulting in laziness and apathy for their work”. Really American Psychology Association, really? It got me thinking about the social construction of slavery and how as a nation we were able to justify our unethical actions even once the obvious inhumanity was exposed.
First, I think it’s important to actually define “mental disorder”; a psychological pattern or anomaly, potentially reflected in behavior, that is generally associated with distress or disability, and which is not considered part of normal development of a person's culture. So given that definition, I think it is safe to assume that many of the mental illnesses that arise from the stressfulness of our culture can be prevented. Now why would slaves feel “distressed or disabled”, why would they deviate from their normal development in their culture? Could it possibly be the constant oppression they face in our day to day society? There for the supposed “cure” to this disease would be to end that oppression.
Secondly, it made me wonder whether or not practically classifying the “freeing of slaves” as a mental disorder was the slave-owners attempt to justify their actions. This would also explain why they thought slavery was a good thing for African Americans; it gave them order and direction which, according to the psychiatrists of that time, they lacked, and there for had a mental disorder.
On a separate note, the fact that psychologists and psychiatrists identified African Americans as having mental disorders meant that they recognized their humanity. When we learned about these two disorders I was really disappointed and discouraged about American society at the time but then I realized that perhaps it was a step in the right direction. I was also reassured because I imagined that anyone who read or heard about these disorders would think they were just as ridiculous as I did. It’s important to remember that even though the majority of American society at the time was falling prey to the media prejudices and political discrimination towards African Americans, there were still people who fought back and went against social norms because ultimately they knew what was moral and ethical.