Exactly 168 years ago on March 17, 1851, Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, a 58-year-old psychologist and surgeon who practiced in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi after having attended University of Penn Medical School, publicly announced the discovery of what he called “Drapetomania,” which he described as a disease that makes enslaved Blacks want to escape or otherwise resist.
As the chairman of a Louisiana State Medical Association committee that researched diseases purportedly unique to Black folks, Cartwright presented at the association’s annual convention a paper entitled, “A Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race.”
Shortly thereafter, the paper was published in the monthly DeBow’s Review, a widely circulated agricultural, commercial, and industrial resource magazine throughout the South. As reported by The Atlantic in its June 2014 edition, DeBow’s Review was known prior to the Civil War as the magazine that “recommended the best practices for wringing profits from slaves.”
In Cartwright’s article, he claimed science proved Blacks had smaller brains, more sensitive skin, and overdeveloped nervous systems- all of which resulted in them being naturally servile. Therefore, according to science, he argued, the “negro is a slave by nature and can never be happy... in any other condition.”
He invented the term “drapetomania” after combining the Greek words for “runaway” and “madness” to describe any Black man, woman, or child who didn’t want to be bought, sold, traded, leased, and/or held in brutal bondage forever with no rights whatsoever. He continued by saying, “It is unknown to our medical authorities, although its diagnostic symptom, the absconding from service, is well known to our... overseers. The cause... that induces the negro to run away... is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation, and much more curable....”
But he didn’t stop with “diagnosing” enslaved Blacks. He also created a term that applied primarily to so-called uppity free Blacks by stating, “Dysaesthesia Aethiopica [basically meaning the abnormal and constant laziness of Ethiopians/Africans] is a disease... affecting both mind and body... [and is] much more prevalent among free Negroes living in clusters by themselves than among slaves....”
In addition to a scientific justification for these two diseases, there was, contended Cartwright, a Biblical justification as well. As he asserted, “If the white man attempts to oppose the Deity’s will by trying to make the negro anything else than ‘the submissive knee-bender’ (which the Almighty declared he should be) by trying to raise him to a level with himself..., the negro will run away; but if he keeps him in the position that we learn from the Scriptures he was intended to occupy, that is, the position of submission..., the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away.”
In addition to the aforementioned diseases, Cartwright prescribed the cure, which consisted of sadistic whippings and toe amputations. He said enslaved Blacks who are “sulky and dissatisfied without cause” are unconsciously displaying a warning of their plan to escape. The way to stifle such plan, he declared, is by “whipping the devil out of them” as a “preventive measure.” And in order to make any escape plan physically impossible, he prescribed the amputation of the big toe on both feet. He really did. How fiendishly savage is that? And it happened often.
You might say this racist pseudoscience was rejected outside Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. But you’d be wrong. It was widespread throughout the South and even accepted in parts of the North.
You might say it was only way back in the 19th century during the 1850s. But you’d be wrong. In the 20th century, as recently as 1914, “Drapetomania” was included in a leading and well respected national textbook entitled, Thomas Lathrop’s Practical Medical Dictionary, wherein it was defined as an “insane impulsion to wander.”
It gets worse. Dr. Jonathan M. Metzl, a woke white Vanderbilt University professor and psychiatrist who holds both an M.D. and a Ph.D., provides details in his 2010 book entitled, The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease. In it, he reveals that during the 20th century at the peak of the Civil Rights era in the 1960s, an updated version of drapetomania emerged when some white psychiatrists and psychologists began diagnosing Black civil rights activists with a subtype of schizophrenia, characterized as having an abnormal desire to advocate for equal treatment.
Think about that for a minute. You or your parents (or grandparents) were already born in the 1960s. So that wasn’t too long ago.
So I call myself “The Angriest Black Man in America” because James Baldwin said, “To be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.”
So that’s why I’m constantly angry, constantly enraged, constantly defiant, and constantly resistant.
Therefore, the best way to diagnose and describe me- and hopefully you, too- is to paraphrase the great Richard Pryor by saying, “That Negro’s crazy.”
Crazy is a wonderful compliment for rebellious Black folks in racist America!