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Feb-08-2011 09:01printcomments

Drapetomania: A Disease Called Freedom

Why should we care about the past? Because: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

A Ride for Liberty: The Fugitive Slaves
An 1860s painting by Eastman Johnson depicts A Ride for Liberty: The Fugitive Slaves

(SAN FRANCISCO) - 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.

================================================== writer Ralph E. Stone was born in Massachusetts. He is a graduate of both Middlebury College and Suffolk Law School. We are very fortunate to have this writer's talents in this troubling world; Ralph has an eye for detail that others miss. As is the case with many writers, Ralph is an American Veteran who served in war. Ralph served his nation after college as a U.S. Army officer during the Vietnam war. After Vietnam, he went on to have a career with the Federal Trade Commission as an Attorney specializing in Consumer and Antitrust Law. Over the years, Ralph has traveled extensively with his wife Judi, taking in data from all over the world, which today adds to his collective knowledge about extremely important subjects like the economy and taxation. You can send Ralph an email at this address

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Arturo February 8, 2011 1:37 pm (Pacific time)

Interesting article. Lately on a cable network they have started their second season of a series called Spartacus, which deals with the gladiators along with very abusive slavery that lasted for countless centuries. Obviously the slaveholders during this time held the opinion that their slaves were inferior and for all practical considerations, as slavery gave way to other forms of elite control, it was not until the Declaration of Independence that a major move happened on a grand scale to allow for individuals to have personal freedom ("Pursuit of life, liberty and happiness"). Now we have a class of leadership in Washington that are shoving a constantly growing government down our collective throats, slowly taking away our individual freedoms. So what's next for the elite? We have numerous groups/organizations that are sounding out the warning about what is happening, but it seems a significant percentage of people out there have been co-opted to support this growing government while demonizing those that are sounding the warning. Wake up people, look at what's going on. There is no free lunch coming your way. Those promises of a couple of years ago, well what happened? You've been hustled.

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