“Hysteria” as a diagnosis is almost 4,000 years old. Back in Ancient Egypt, women whose behavior deviated from accepted norms were given medications by doctors for their hysteria. Only women could be hysterical, which is why the name itself comes from the Greek word for uterus — hystera. Women who behaved abnormally were thought to have problems related to the uterus wandering around the body, being in the wrong position, or having various defects. Egyptian doctors would put medication on the vulva to encourage the uterus to return to its normal position. Greek doctors would give women medication to make the uterus healthy. Later, Christian doctors would perform exorcisms to relieve the womb of demonic possessions. Some of the behaviors that led to a diagnosis of hysteria were an inability to have children or the lack of desire to get married.
So, if you were a woman living in pre-modern times who had a miscarriage, had a stressful menopause, or didn’t want to be stuck to a man for the rest of your life, you may end up with a strong salve between your legs, medications that make you sick, or a priest telling Satan to get out of your uterus.
The first recorded instances of hysteria were around 1900BC, and from then up through the 17th Century, hysteria was considered a physical illness that a doctor could diagnose. In the late 1600s, there was a shift in the scientific community and hysterical women were now thought to have a mental illness instead of a physical one. Since mental illness was (and still is in many ways) poorly understood, women who behaved badly were put into asylums. Men in medicine diagnosed women with hysteria for a wide range of symptoms from seizures and hallucinations to being annoying and not knowing their place in society. If you’re a man whose wife doesn’t follow the societal norms of the time, you get her diagnosed with “female hysteria” and a doctor prescribes some pills to knock her out. You could also choose to have her sent away, either to the country to get some air (if you like her), or to an asylum to be locked up (if you don’t).
Psychiatry was a convenient resource to rid men of women who questioned their authority. One of the most famous cases is that of Christine Collins, a single mother whose son was abducted in 1928.
The nationwide publicity made the LAPD look bad and, after they found the wrong boy and tried to convince Collins it was her son, the captain of the police department had her committed to a psychiatric ward.
Captain Jones called her a lunatic and claimed she was trying to get the state to take care of her child and believed she was just trying to embarrass the police department. He threw her into a psychiatric ward in Los Angeles County General Hospital on a “Code 12” which allowed police to get rid of troublemakers by throwing them into psychiatric hospitals.
(cont. Crime Museum)
Collins was eventually released and sued the department twice (winning the second one, though she never received her payment ordered by the court), and California made it illegal for the cops to put someone in a psych ward without a warrant.
“Drapetomania” was a mental illness invented by a pro-slavery physician in 1851. Drapetes is Greek for “runaway slave” and mania is Greek for “madness or frenzy” so we have another illness with Greek root words, to make it sound important, thrown at a disenfranchised community. Samuel A. Cartwright was a typical white man in the antebellum South who believed Blacks were inferior to whites, and it was one of his missions to “prove” it scientifically in order for slave-owning whites to have a factual line of reasoning for keeping Africans and their descendants in chains.
A slave running away from captivity wasn’t just another human longing to be free — that slave was afflicted with drapetomania. Blacks were supposed to love slavery, and it was up to slave-owners to ensure that love by treating their slaves like children.
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. If any one or 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 requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy. They have only to be kept in that state, and treated like children to prevent and cure them from running away.
On the other hand, if treating them like children didn’t work, you should cut off their big toes so they can’t run. Or just whip them. Those are the only two options — infantilization or brutal violence. (x)
Slaves who wanted to be free had a mental illness, but what about free Negroes? They needed a mental illness as well, so whites could justify their brutal treatment of all Black people. Cartwright had an answer for that too: dysaesthesia aethiopica, which basically meant all Black people were lazy unless prodded by whites to be productive. Slaves were naturally lazy, but if you gave them a structured workday and just enough food and a clean place to sleep, you could keep dysaesthesia aethiopica at bay. One of the symptoms was skin insensitivity, so the slave should be washed, oiled, whipped, then put to work in the sunshine. (x) Another symptom was skin lesions…which would be caused by whipping. Cartwright had built a circular argument in support of brutalizing Black people.
There was no hope for free Negroes. They were all lazy because they didn’t have any white people to tell them what to do.
On the other side of that coin, too much initiative could also result in a diagnosis of mental illness. In 1958, the University of Mississippi was still an all-white institution of higher learning, and Clennon Washington King, Jr. sought to change that. He applied as a graduate student, but he never made it past registration.
In the summer of 1958 King attempted to enter the graduate program in history at the University of Mississippi. No African American had ever applied to the university, and the white power structure struck back quickly and devastatingly. When King arrived in Oxford to register, Gov. J. P. Coleman, members of the state highway patrol, and several plainclothes officers greeted him. After forcibly removing King from the registration area, state authorities carried him to jail. Two physicians then declared King insane, and he spent nearly two weeks in a state asylum before his younger brother, civil rights lawyer C. B. King, secured his release.
(cont. Mississippi Encyclopedia)
Inconvenient Black people are still sent away when white people are uncomfortable. I started thinking about the abusive history of psychiatry this weekend when I saw a story from a Black man who worked at Cards Against Humanity and was locked up by his bosses because he wanted to keep the n-word out of the game.
Nicolas Carter was the only Black person in the original writing room, and he spent much of his time at CAH censoring himself because he needed the job. Speaking up can get you fired. Once he got a job elsewhere and CAH became a secondary source of income, his disposition changed. Not only was he less stressed about money (and therefore in a more positive headspace), he wasn’t as afraid to bring criticisms to the floor because he wasn’t afraid of losing his job.
That positive attitude alongside his newfound ability to tell white people when they were wrong landed him in a psychiatric ward.
From what I’ve been able to gather, Andy, Jo, Jack, and Eunji felt that my behavior had changed so dramatically that I must have been facing a mental break. One of the side-effects of having money was my mood improving, who could have known, and the combination of me saying what I really thought and being happy didn’t seem like my normal self to them.
Andy reached out to my sister who was a senior in college. He told her that I was going to be disciplined at work for my behavior and could lose my job, which so frightened my parents that they drove from New York to Chicago overnight. My dad came to my apartment and asked me to “see someone.” I agreed, since I was imagining a therapist on a couch asking me if I was suicidal. He drove me to Illinois Masonic, where the combination of my parents’ concern and the collateral of a co-worker who was operating with the head writer were enough to have me forcibly kept there.
I was admitted on a Friday at 6pm so I didn’t see a psychiatrist until Monday. She was tall, blonde and flanked by two med students. When I told her I had been in a stressful home environment growing up due to poverty and the fact that my parents told me I had to be better than the white boys to compete, she told me that was preposterous. Why would two anti-racist scholars teach their son to see white boys as competitors? Anti-racists would teach their son that race didn’t matter at all. I asked her if we could bring a single person of color into the room besides me to illustrate how common I felt it was to be taught this, she said no. She later listed my concerns as “spontaneous delusions” on “racial topics.”
I had realized I needed to lie to get out after my conversation with the psychiatrist, so I spit my 5mg Abilify pills into the water fountain and said I was grateful until they let me out after five days.
4000 years after women were vaginally medicated for not wanting to have children, 150 years after Black people were whipped to cure the mental illness of laziness, 100 years after a woman was locked up for knowing a runaway boy was not her child, and 60 years after a Black man was put in a mental institution for the crime of wanting to go to a white school, we have a Black man admitted against his will because he didn’t want his bosses to put the n-word into a card game.
Psychiatry is a great help to many people (self included) but psychiatry has frequently been used by those in power (usually white men) to rid themselves of inconvenient undesirables. If your experience with psychiatry falls along those lines, remember you’re not alone and that there are caregivers who recognize this and will treat you with the respect you deserve. Do your research and seek recommendations from people you trust. And if you know someone who needs emergency assistance, make sure you do your research before you turn them over to a profession with a history of gaslighting and marginalization.
Take this Jim Crow era literacy test for Black people.
I have a master’s degree, and I failed on the first question.
I know what a literacy test is, but sadly, I’d never looked one up to see what the questions were like. During Jim Crow, they were used to keep Black people from voting. Some poor and illiterate whites got caught in the net as well, and that makes sense for a country who, when founded, only gave voting rights to landowning whites, but the purpose was to keep Black people from being heard. Former congressional candidate Gary Chambers Jr. posted a literacy test today, and you can’t pass it. I can’t pass it. No one can pass it.
This particular test from Louisiana in 1964 was to be administered to anyone who could not prove they had finished 5th grade or higher, which would overwhelmingly apply to more Black people. We had less access to education and were more likely to quit school in order to work the land and help our parents keep a meager roof over the family’s head back when so many Black people were sharecroppers.
And there’s no uniform key for this test. The white registrar reads the answers and decides whether you answered correctly or not. I’m sure this test, on the rare occasion it was given to white people at all, was graded more leniently when the hand turning it in wasn’t colored.
So. Take it and see if you would be able to vote in Louisiana in 1964, less than 60 years ago.
Ten minutes to complete 30 questions is about twenty seconds per question, and you have to get every single one correct. If this was an actual literacy test, I would pass with flying colors, because I can read well enough to know that some of these questions are unanswerable, but it’s not about literacy. It’s about creating a standard that no one can meet and then applying it unfairly to Black people. It’s giving Black people additional burdens to be perfect that white people don’t have. It’s disparaging Michelle Obama for showing her arms in her White House portrait even though Melania has nude photoshoots online. It’s arresting Black people for marijuana at 3 times the rate of white people, even though the same percentage of Black people smoke weed as white people. (x) It’s Black college students being just as likely to find employment as white people who didn’t even finish high school. (x) It’s cops shooting unarmed Black people and taking a white mass shooter to Burger King. (x)
A lot of Black kids heard this refrain from our parents growing up: You have to be twice as good as the white folks to get half as far. However. When the judge and jury of your achievement is White America, you can still fail the test they never even have to take.
Today I Learned: Gloria Richardson is still alive.
President John F. Kennedy told protestors in Dorchester County to stand down. Gloria Richardson told JFK he could go to hell.
It goes viral anytime the country is protesting police brutality or having a conversation about political upheaval or urging people to use their voice at the polls because so many of our ancestors never had the opportunity. It’s a picture of a woman pushing her way past a law enforcement officer blocking her way with a bayonetted rife.
Today I learned that her name is Gloria Richardson and she is 98-years-old.
Her name is Gloria Richardson and yes, she did survive. She'll be 98 this year.. pic.twitter.com/ygDxtVc1ot— LJ (@fortunatelyljm) October 27, 2020
I have a job interview in a minute, but I wanted to dig around real quick and find out what I could about how this picture came to be, and now I’m annoyed that the woman Ebony magazine dubbed The Lady General of Civil Rights was never once mentioned in school.
In 1922, Gloria Richardson was born into a family of Black people that had been free since before the Civil War. They’d been able to amass property and assets (without having them stolen by whites), and by the early 20th century, they were a prominent, educated Black family in Cambridge (Dorchester County) Maryland who owned multiple businesses and rental properties. Gloria earned a BA in Sociology at Howard University and participated in a few pickets and sit-ins, but when she returned home to Cambridge, she mostly concerned herself with raising a family and local civic work.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed in 1960 and Gloria was initially resistant to the organization because she wasn’t onboard with their policy of peaceful and nonviolent protest. When SNCC came to Cambridge in 1961, Gloria’s daughter Donna went out to support the demonstrations and Gloria became involved. The first adult branch of SNCC was set up in Cambridge with Gloria as its head and she kept the pressure on Maryland officials for the next three years. Gloria and CNAC (Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee) organized freedom walks, protests, voter drives, and Gloria, as a woman from a prominent local family, was at the forefront in negotiations with local government. Typically the women on the front lines of the movement were less educated, less well-off, and had less to lose. Gloria used her visibility as a prominent Black woman to make inroads with politicians — and she was an uncompromising leader.
“We can’t deal with her; we can’t deal without her,” bemoaned a white Citizens’ Council spokesman during the height of protests in the Eastern Shore city. Ebony magazine dubbed her “The lady general of civil rights.”
(cont. SNCC Digital)
As protest continued to grow in 1963, local whites demanded assistance from elected officials, the governor imposed martial law, and the national guard was requested. President John F. Kennedy told protestors in Dorchester County to stand down. Gloria Richardson told JFK he could go to hell. (x)
Protesting continued and whites attacked demonstrators during sit-ins and freedom walks. Police and the national guard used guns and teargas to break up protests, including a freedom walk in July 1963 where Gloria urged protestors to keep moving through guards with bayonetted rifles as they made their way across the city.
That same month, Attorney General Robert Kennedy worked out a Treaty of Cambridge with local and state officials that would give equal access to public facilities. Gloria Richardson and CNAC boycotted the vote because, “A first-class citizen does not beg for freedom. A first-class citizen does not plead to the white power-structure to give him something that the whites have no power to give or take away. Human rights are human rights, not white rights.” (x)
A few weeks later in August at the March on Washington, Gloria and five other women were honored on stage, but no women were allowed to speak. Gloria took the mic and said “hello–” before it was taken away from her. Here’s an interview for the 50th anniversary of the March back in 2013 where Gloria talks about that day and how women were silenced.
(skip to 18:44 – transcript at Democracy Now)
Protesting continued through Autumn and Winter until LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act in July 1964, a little less than a year after Gloria stared down a bayonet in one of the most widely circulated photos of the movement featuring a hero we rarely speak of by name. She moved to Harlem the next month, largely retired from public life, and focused on local civic works in the community since then.
Let’s take this energy with us to the polls though. They can try to intimidate us, but they don’t have bayonets anymore, and, for what it’s worth, we do have the law on our side this time. Do it for Gloria Richardson. Tell this administration to go to hell.
The 19th Amendment gave white women the right to vote.
It was another 40 years and change before Black women could vote.
Need to see less “today is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote” and more “today is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving WHITE women the right to vote.”
It was another 40 years and change before Black women could vote.
Also want to point out that Black women worked right alongside white women for equal suffrage, but they were working for women AND Black people. When Black men got the right to vote in 1870, Susan B Anthony was upset white women didn’t come first. The American Equal Rights Association was working for equal suffrage for all — including Black people — so Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton left because Black men got the right to vote before white women, and they started the National Woman Suffrage Association.
So let’s recognize the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment but keep in context that the white women who benefited from it did so with the groundwork of Black women working alongside them that they subsequently abandoned in favor of whiteness.
(Oh and in case anyone needs clarity, the 15th Amendment gave Black men the right to vote, but the end of Reconstruction made it effectively null and void because states just threw up barriers to voting anyway. We had voting rights on paper, but not in practice.)
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