By Amal Saad-Ghorayeb
“Drapetomania”, a pseudo-scientific term coined by the American physician, Samuel A. Cartwright in 1851, was a socially/politically-constructed mental illness which supposedly afflicted black slaves who fled captivity during the US’ slave era. While later dismissed as pseudo-science and “scientific racism”, imperialists today still adopt the same psychopathologizing discourse when referring to freedom-seeking, oppressed people who actively resist foreign domination. Thus for example, the US foreign policy concept of the “rogue” state (which at various times included Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea, Cuba, Afghanistan, Sudan)—first floated by Ronald Regan ”…the strangest collection of misfits, loony tunes, and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich” and later defined as the “recalcitrant and outlaw states that not only choose to remain outside the family [of democratic nations] but also assault its basic values,” by Clinton’s National Security Advisor, Anthony Lake.
In essence, all mental disorders are characterized by a detachment from reality and some degree of irrationality, hence the frequent depiction of Iran as an irrational political actor (see my blog entry here for a brief discussion of this tendency).This discourse can also be found in the pervasive labeling of anti-imperialist leaders like Bashar al-Assad as being “delusional”, “out of touch with reality” and suffering from various psychological disorders. Anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist intellectuals are similarly pathologized as lacking “emotional distance” and “objectivity” (ie. a an accurate reading of reality) and are summarily dismissed as stupefied “groupies”.
As with the psycho-pathologization of African slaves in the past, and American society in general today, the objective behind this psycho-political phenomenon is the need to control, manage and tame the “deviant” state or party which refuses to be enslaved to Empire. More on this later in that article on psycho-pathologizing the resistance axis.
Below are excerpts from Cartwright’s definition of the disorder:
“Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race,” by Dr. Cartwright (in DeBow’s Review)
“DRAPETOMANIA, OR THE DISEASE CAUSING NEGROES TO RUN AWAY.
It is unknown to our medical authorities, although its diagnostic symptom, the absconding from service, is well known to our planters and overseers…
In noticing a disease not heretofore classed among the long list of maladies that man is subject to, it was necessary to have a new term to express it. The cause in the most of cases, that induces the negro to run away from service, is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation, and much more curable, as a general rule. With the advantages of proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many negroes have of running away, can be almost entirely prevented, although the slaves be located on the borders of a free state, within a stone’s throw of the abolitionists.
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 sane time ministers to his physical wants, and protects him from abuses, the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away.
According to my experience, the “genu flexit”—the awe and reverence, must be exacted from them, or they will despise their masters, become rude and ungovernable, and run away. On Mason and Dixon’s line, two classes of persons were apt to lose their negroes: those who made themselves too familiar with them, treating them as equals, and making little or no distinction in regard to color; and, on the other hand, those who treated them cruelly, denied them the common necessaries of life, neglected to protect them against the abuses of others, or frightened them by a blustering manner of approach, when about to punish them for misdemeanors. Before the negroes run away, unless they are frightened or panic-struck, they become sulky and dissatisfied. The cause of this sulkiness and dissatisfaction should be inquired into and removed, or they are apt to run away or fall into the negro consumption. When sulky and dissatisfied without cause, the experience of those on the line and elsewhere, was decidedly in favor of whipping them out of it, as a preventive measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them.
If treated kindly, well fed and clothed, with fuel enough to keep a small fire burning all night—separated into families, each family having its own house—not permitted to run about at night to visit their neighbors, to receive visits or use intoxicating liquors, and not overworked or exposed too much to the weather, they are very easily governed—more so than any other people in the world. When all this is done, if any one of more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good require that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which it was intended for them to occupy in all after-time, when their progenitor received the name of Canaan or “submissive knee-bender.” They have only to be kept in that state and treated like children, with care, kindness, attention and humanity, to prevent and cure them from running away.”