Politics & Race
Black People Are Crazy: The Return of Drapetomania

In the 1800’s psychology and psychiatry were still new and inexact sciences filled with half-cocked, inane ideas about how the brain works. Many new world doctors based their psychiatric theories on the pseudoscience of race. One of the men on the forefront of the burgeoning movement was Dr. Samuel A Cartwright. In 1851 he proposed that there existed a mental illness rampant among slaves that made them belligerent and even caused them to wanted to escape from freedom. He called it Drapetomania.

Drapetomania – (n.) a mental illness that causes Negroes to resist the institution of slavery and sometimes flee captivity

Even though the scientific evidence for Drapetomania was eventually debunked, the idea of Black resistance as a mental illness still lingers. The Black Panthers of the 1960’s were called “paranoid maniacs.” Fox News and other conservatives routinely paint the Black Lives Matter movement as insane belligerents infected with a hive mentality. After the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, even President Obama had to sit White people down and explain to them that the hordes of young Black people upset by the treatment of the police were not “making this stuff up.”

Yet there are many who still believe in the tenets of Drapetomania. The hardcore adherents simply believe that people of color don’t take advantage of the opportunities America has to offer. They believe Black people don’t work hard enough, or are genetically predisposed to an anti-democratic unruliness that causes them to “play the race card” and whine about unfairness instead of focusing on family and education. Even the left-of-center liberals believe that race is not as much a problem as much as socioeconomic disparities and “lack of resources.” They pretend to be accepting and understanding until they guffaw and are taken aback when some “militant” Black grabs the microphone from Bernie Sanders or interrupts a Bill Clinton stump speech. When Ashley Williams unfurled a banner with Hillary Clinton’s own words, during a fundraising event, the crowd actually hissed at her. Hissed. What they fuck, white people?

So this is strictly for my NegusWhoRead’s white readers.

I know many of you can’t understand how your proclamation of “All Lives Matter,” could upset anyone, or why your Black friends didn’t roll up in a ball and weep at the injustice of the legal system when a jury found O.J. not guilty. It’s because Black people are crazy. They suffer from the now-defunct diagnoses of Drapetomania. It has returned. As in all things–from Avatar to 12 Years a Slave, it is up to our white saviors to notice the symptoms and rescue Black people from impending doom. Here are the classic symptoms so that you will know when your Black friend is suffering from early onset Drapetomania.

Stage 1: The Wake Up – Thursday was “whipping day.” There is a slave narrative that tells the story of a little girl who received her first whipping from the slave supervisor. For the entire next week she was on her best behavior, but she was still put in line to receive a flogging.  She tried harder the next week, not even uttering a word, but she still received her weekly lashing. Finally she asked her older brother when the whippings would stop. He informed her that it was the slavemaster’s job to whip them so that they would be motivated to work. He told her the beatings would end “when they run out of whippings… Or cotton.” After that, she became the most troublesome Negro on the plantation until she escaped two years later, but she said that day–when she realized she was going to the weekly whipping post for the rest of her life–was the day she stopped being a slave.

One day you will arrive at work and notice that Lakeisha in accounts payable cut off all her beautiful, silky jet black hair. No, she didn’t get a case of head lice, nor is she undergoing chemotherapy. This is how Drapetomania begins, but you shouldn’t approach her yet. And FOR GOD’S SAKE DO NOT ASK TO TOUCH HER HAIR! Likewise, if your Black friend, Jamaal wears a daishiki to the company barbecue, take notice but don’t be alarmed. They might be Drapetomania victims, but they are still in the “waking up” phase. It could be temporary. Remember when Randy wore that Scottish Kilt to his grandfather’s funeral? It’s kinda like that. I know it makes you uncomfortable to see anyone eschew the European beauty aesthetic, but suppress your caucasian heebie jeebies and wait. It is your job to watch them closely and see if they wake all the way up. Your job is to make sure that they don’t stay woke.  By then it will be too late. They will be off the plantation by then.

Stage 2.  Speaking Up – Why must Black people frame everything around race? It’s like they are consumed with it? Every time you get into a conversation about politics, current events or even personal stories, they always drag the discussion to race and Blackness. It must be a mental illness because it seems they are so focused on race that they can’t concentrate on anything else. People who suffer from progressive Drapetomania equate race with every social, economic and political phenomenon, whereas most white people don’t focus on race, unless it is concerning Obama. Or an Old Navy Ad. Or a Donald Trump rally. If you’re white the rest of the world views you as a person, or a professional, or a friend, etc. but the world views your Black friend as your BLACK co-worker, or the BLACK professional, or the BLACK whatever. Don’t listen to them, that’s just the Drapetomania talking, even though you do think of Jamaal as your “black friend.” 

Stage 3. Demand – Stage 3 Drapetomania reveals itself when Black people start wanting stuff and play the race card to get it. Affirmative action is a result of Drapetomaniacs demanding a level playing field. The Voting Rights Act is a result of uppity Black sufferers of the illness asking for constitutional rights. Appeasing those sick voices is part of the cure for Drapetomania. Instituting affirmative action hasn’t erased the disparity in Black vs White employment rates. Voter ID laws and gerrymandering is a legal workaround to the Voting Rights Act. It’s also why Lakeisha has been at the company for three years longer than you, has an advanced degree, but hasn’t received a promotion. When she asks for a raise, they’ll give it to her because the way to stop Drapetomania from advancing, according to Dr. Cartwright is:

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, or by putting himself on an equality with the negro; or if he abuses the power which God has given him over his fellow-man, by being cruel to him, or punishing him in anger, or by neglecting to protect him from the wanton abuses of his fellow-servants and all others, or by denying him the usual comforts and necessaries of life, 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; and if his master or overseer be kind and gracious in his hearing towards him, without condescension, and at the same time ministers to his physical wants, and protects him from abuses, the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away.

Stage 4: The Escape – When acute Drapetomania hits, your Black friend will become very belligerent. You’ll think they are crazy, and they are. Drapetomaniacs don’t give a fuck. They are tired of being whipped. It might manifest itself as a single slave sneaking off into the night headed north towards freedom. Everyone has a breaking point, and a Stage 4 Drapetomania sufferer might do something crazy like jump on a man who is 100 lbs heavier and armed with a gun for following him through a Sanford, Florida neighborhood. There are even stories of a man who ran away from a Baltimore Police Officer simply because he had committed no crime and feared for his safety! I know it sounds illogical (because why would a police officer kill an innocent man?), but that’s how mental illnesses like this work.

Stage 5. The Slave Revolt – Every few generations,  Drapetomania spreads through an entire community and the entire group decides to grab pitchforks and machetes aso they can “get free.” Cinque did it on a slave ship. Toussaint Louverture did it in Haiti. Denmark Vessey did it in South Carolina. They did it in Ferguson, Missouri. They did it in Baltimore. It will happen again. This is the stage everyone should fear because it makes no sense. Even though those Drapetomaniacs don’t own those plantations or CVS’s, people will still ask why they are setting fires, why they are in such a frenzy or even why they are burning down their own neighborhoods. The answer is simple. Either:

a. For half a millennium Black people who didn’t know each other, who lived in different places and in different generations have all coincidentally, but independently, grown tired and angry from centuries of being marginalized, abused and given the scraps from the table of a system that sucks their energy, culture and life while stiff-arming them away from any real American progress, or

b. Black people are crazy.


About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

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