Eclectic Rant: Drapetomania: A Disease Called Freedom

By Ralph E. Stone
Monday February 07, 2011 - 03:23:00 PM

Since 1976, Black History Month is celebrated annually in the United States in February. While it is a celebration, it should also be a remembrance of slavery, the dark side of Black history in this country. 

While in New Orleans last year, we visited the New Orleans African American Museum, located in the Tremé neighborhood some three blocks from the French Quarter. For much of its history, Tremé was the largest and most prosperous community of free people of color in the United States. 

One of the exhibitions at the museum was called Drapetomania: A Disease Called Freedom. The title of the exhibition was taken from an 1854 article in a monthly Southern journal entitled The Georgia Blister and Critic . The journal dealt with the “diseases and physical peculiarities of the Negro race.” In his article, the word drapetomania was created by the noted Louisiana physician and psychologist Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright by combining the Greek words for runaway slave and mad or crazy. Drapetomania was used to describe the disease that “induces the negro to run away from service. [and] is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation, and much more curable, as a general rule.” 

According to Dr. Cartwright, the disease of drapetomania -- peculiar to Blacks -- justified the enslavement as a therapeutic necessity for the slaves and as a medical and moral necessity for their White masters. He claimed that Blacks who fled slavery suffered from drapetomania. At the time pro-slavery advocates believed that Blacks benefited from slavery and any Black who tried to escape must be crazy. The cure was a sound beating. 

Cartwright also described another mental illness called Dysaethesia Aethiopica to describe the apparent lack of work ethic exhibited by many slaves. The cure was to put the slave to hard work in the sunshine under the watchful eye of a White man. 

Drapetomania and Dysaethesia Aethiopica are among many examples of scientific racism or racist propaganda masquerading as objective scientific inquiry. Today, we should know that the desire for freedom is not a disease, nor is the unwillingness to work for a slaver. Clearly, the goal of Cartwright and other scientific racists is and was the defense of a racial hierarchy. 

Unfortunately, Cartwright was not the only scientist to use pseudoscience to rationalize or justify the subordination of Africans and African Americans. For example, in 1797, Dr. Benjamin Rush, the “father” of American psychiatry, declared that the dark skin of Blacks was caused by a rare, congenital disease called Negritude, which derived from leprosy. The only cure was to turn the skin white. 

And in the 19th and 20th Centuries, many White craniologists, phrenologists, evolutionists, geneticists, and others argued that dark-skinned peoples are inherently inferior to light-skinned peoples intellectually, morally, socially, and culturally. This led to a racial hierarchy that had Whites at the top, Yellows in the middle, and Reds, Browns, and Blacks at the bottom. Remember South Africa under apartheid? 

Why should we care about the past? Because: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” - -George Santayana, 1863–1953, American philosopher 

The information contained in this article was taken from “Drapetomania: A Disease Called Freedom” --A 2010 exhibition of 18th, 19th, and early 20th Century material of the African experience in the Americas from the collection of Derrick Joshua Beard, at the New Orleans African American Museum.