Black History Fun Fact Friday – “Drapetomania”

Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright was a prominent physician and medical writer in New Orleans. He specialized in “mental alienation,” an expression that meant a break with reality or a schism in mind. Cartwright is most known and remembered for his theories of drapetomania—the belief that a disease caused slaves to run away. Also known as “Free Negro Insanity,” Cartwright defined “Drapetomania” as the madness of black slaves running away from their white captors.

He derived this term from the Greek words drapeto, meaning “runaway slave” and mania, meaning “mad” or “crazy.” Cartwright believed that blacks who rebelled did so because of mental instability. He thought with the proper medical advice and treatment, they could prevent the practice of slaves running away. By 1851, Cartwright became “Professor of Diseases of the Negro” at the University of Louisiana and was deemed an expert on black behavior.

Cartwright’s theories were readily accepted because the law had already begun to link radicalized slaves who were “disobedient” to mental illness. “Cartwright compared runaway slaves to run away cats who fled only in fits of enthusiasm from their owners, and then returned.” (Eberly, 2014) To put it into perspective the extent to which enslaved men and women were considered commodities, consider redhibition, “a civil law claim against the seller and/or manufacturer of a product in which the buyer demands a full refund or a reduction of the purchase price due to a hidden defect that prevents the product from performing the task for which it was purchased.” (US Legal) If a buyer could prove a slave was mentally ill and that the previous owner knew of this illness (his/her capacity to run away, rebel, e.g.), the buyer could get his money back.

Another disease from Cartwright was “Dysaesthesia Aethiopica,” which in short was a disease Cartwright and other “prominent,” physicians claimed caused laziness in slaves.

“From the careless movements of the individuals affected with the complaint, they are apt to do much mischief, which appears as if intentional, but is mostly owing to the stupidness of mind and insensibility of the nerves induced by the disease. Thus, they break, waste and destroy everything they handle,–abuse horses and cattle,–tear, burn or rend their own clothing, and, paying no attention to the rights of property, steal others, to replace what they have destroyed. They wander about at night, and keep in a half nodding sleep during the day. They slight their work,–cut up corn, cane, cotton or tobacco when hoeing it, as if for pure mischief. They raise disturbances with their overseers and fellow-servants without cause or motive, and seem to be insensible to pain when subjected to punishment.”

– “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race.”

From James Marion Sims, who experimented on black women’s bodies and without anesthesia (Washington, 2006, pp. 61) to Ota Benga and Saartjie Baartman, whose bodies were displayed like animals, the medical and scientific field has an extensive history of racism against African Americans. Consider that blacks were often wrongfully admitted to mental institutions. Studies conducted in 1973 in the Archives of General Psychiatry showed that African American patients were more likely to be diagnosed as schizophrenic than white patients. Consider too The Negro Project, led by Margaret Sanger of The American Birth Control Federation. It included the forced sterilization of impoverished African Americans.

Consider also the HeLa cell.

Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacksand Oprah’s film adoption brought attention to the widespread illegal use of the HeLa cell lineThe two scientists, Dr. Russell W. Brown and James H.M. Henderson made their mark by leading a team of researchers and staff at Tuskegee University in the mass production of the HeLa cells for the development of the polio vaccine. It was believed that blacks were immune to the virus which led to the disregard for the suffering of African Americans with the disease.

Speaking of Tuskegee, we cannot forget the Tuskegee Experiment or, more accurately, “The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” Initiated by the United States, Public Health Service in connection with the Tuskegee Institute and the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital, six hundred men were given the Syphilis disease, without consent, and were left untreated. This “experiment” lasted as late as 1972. Long-term effects of untreated syphilis included issues with mental functions, memory loss, loss of vision, balance, and other symptoms.

Understanding mental illness and its role in the enslavement and oppression of blacks is essential because it offers a window into how slave-owners justified slavery to keep it going. Consider the story of the white overseer who used mental illness to explain away why he had killed an enslaved man named Samuel. (Willoughby, 2018). The overseer got word that Samuel had become unmanageable, that he was destroying cotton, and that even after being ordered to be whipped, Samuel said he would not be whipped. Both of Samuel’s acts—his destruction of the cotton crop, and his unwillingness to submit to whipping— represented symptoms for what Cartwright deemed “Dysaesthesia Aethiopica,” and thus the murder was justified.


Be sure to check out more Black History Fun Facts Here.

References

Ariela Gross, Double Character: Slavery & Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom (Princeton, 2000), 87

Willoughby, Christopher D. E. “Running Away from Drapetomania: Samuel A. Cartwright, Medicine, and Race in the Antebellum South.” Journal of Southern History, vol. 84 no. 3, 2018, p. 579-614. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/soh.2018.0164.

Disability and the African American Experience https://www.museumofdisability.org/disability-and-the-african-american-experience/

Redhibition. (n.d.) In US Legal, Redhibition Law and Legal Definition

https://definitions.uslegal.com/r/redhibition/

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington

Development of the Polio Vaccine: A Historical Perspective of Tuskegee University’s Role in Mass Production and Distribution of HeLa Cells. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4458465/

#Spotlight “The Stella Trilogy” by Yecheilyah Ysrayl

Thanks Felicia!

Nesie's Place

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Stella: Between Slavery and Freedom

In book one, Cynthia McNair and her boyfriend, Alex, express some racist feelings toward blacks. They visit Cynthia’s Grandmother Sidney McNair, who recounts the story of her ancestor, a slave named Stella Mae. Cynthia has no idea of her African ancestry or how deep this rabbit hole goes.

AMAZON

~~~

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Stella: Beyond the Colored Line

In book two, we dig deeper into the McNair family’s legacy. Named after her great-grandmother, Stella has a very light complexion, causing her to be the tease of her classmates. Unable to find solace among her African American contemporaries, Stella finds it challenging to adjust to a world where she is too light to be black. After The Great Depression of the 1930s forces Stella’s family to move to Chicago, a conversation with Aunt Sara provokes Stella to do something that will dramatically affect not just her life but the…

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SugarCoated and Springtime

They get tired of hearing it.
Ain’t nobody got to say it,
I know that they get tired.
Tired of these distractions in brown-colored skin
waking up from Valley’s
with muscles and tendons
all conscious-like.
Uncovering the blood in the American Flag—
Tired, tethered, and intoxicated
with his story.
Unraveling the color of bigotry on a beautiful glass,
Smeared fingerprints and fallen stars like
Why they keep sittin’ in?
Between our comfort and a hard place.
America,
This be some kinda hard place
for brown-colored skin
in the springtime.

Strange fruit popping up again on trees,
‘cept Nina ain’t here to sing us a song.
After 400 years
songs just don’t work anymore.
Tired of these guns accidentally going off,
Landing somewhere in my purse.
somewhere in my womb.
Somewhere in my future between lipstick and foundation.
I’ve got to warn my sons
about accidental guns.
Generational homicide got me on my knees praying
the badge
ain’t got his name on it.
Let’s be accurate about it.
Will I be left with the fragmented
pieces of my husband’s shoes
between our front porch and the living room floor?

Will my kiss linger long enough to bring him home tonight?
Or will I suffer a widow’s fate of mistaken identity?
After all, these brown, tan, bronze, and mahogany-colored
skins all do look the same…
Don’t they?

I’m afraid of your guns.
They don’t know the difference
between friend and foe–
or maybe, they do.
Funny how bullets be mistakin’ themselves for judges
that ain’t got names on them.
They say a gun
ain’t got a name on it.
Why are they sugar-coating it?

‘Cause people get tired of hearing about all this black…
All this oppression,
All these curses,
All this power like,
Why we won’t pour sugar on top of these bodies?
Get ’em up off the street.
Don’t want our bullets to get stirred up, ya know.
Getting up outta beds,
loading themselves into chambers
and taking walks at night,
in the afternoon, and especially in the morning,
when it’s springtime.


Fun Fact: I first wrote this poem four years ago (almost to the day). Reposting because it is still fitting for today’s climate. You can find it in my I am Soul poetry collection. 

Revising The Stella Trilogy: Crafting Authentic Historical Details

In Beyond the Colored Line, book two of The Stella Trilogy, we meet Noah Daniels who is a member of The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. There are two books I read that helped me to conceptualize his character in the most authentic way possible: Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton and The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther by Jeffrey Haas.

These books helped me to capture the language and the spirit of the movement as realistically as possible. I modeled Noah’s persona after both Huey Newton and Fred Hampton. Noah uses terms like “Pig,” regarding the police like the Panthers did in the 60s, but reading Newton’s story helped me to understand this wasn’t a random term they pulled out of the sky to be derogatory.

Black Panther rhetoric like “All Power to the People,” and the concept of “pig,” came with Newton’s interest in A. J. Ayer’s logical positivism, that nothing can be real if it cannot be conceptualized, articulated, and shared. While I do not agree with this philosophy as a person of faith (because faith is the opposite of this…the belief and expectation of something even when you cannot see it), it was helpful in me understanding the Panthers on a deeper level and thus helped me to make Noah’s story more real.

Not all research needs to be included in the story so you won’t hear Noah quoting A.J. Ayer. The point of research for historical books is to help the writer to better understand the culture of the time so the characters can interact with the setting genuinely.

Historical Fiction is not an easy genre to write because while the story itself is fictional, the dialogue and personas of the characters have to be true to the time. A young person living in 1960 wouldn’t speak like a young person living in 2020. If done right, adding authentic historical details enrich the story by triggering memories of the past.

Excerpt from Chapter Ten:

“That just bugs me. We supposed to march and get hit upside the head by the pigs?” he would say in conversations with his mother when he would visit her. Unlike many young black men raised by their mothers, Noah’s mother had decided early on that her son’s narrative would be different. When he came of age, she would turn him over to be raised by his father. She could provide a lot of things, but she could not teach him how to be a man. She supported most of Noah’s radicalism, but only to an extent.

“Now don’t you go rappin’ ‘bout all that communist jive talk in here boy. Violence and hatred never helped to expand no revolution.”

“But Ma, that’s where you’re wrong. It’s not about violence. It’s about defending ourselves. Violence is only the guilt complex that exists in the minds of America.”

Mama Daniels would lift her head to the ceiling, wishing she’d said nothing.

“To say that a man is violent because he defends himself does not differ from saying a man who is being lynched and thus fighting back is himself violent because he fights back.”

“Boy, what? You know, sometimes I wish you weren’t so smart.”

Noah laughed, “’cause you know I’m right. Mama, white Americans know that they have been violent against Negroes, and they fear that one day the Negro will do unto them as they have done unto the Negro.”

The 1960s presented a new wave of leadership and identity for people of color who went from being Negroes to Blacks. Just the previous year, the heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali refused induction into the army on both religious and political grounds. The epitome of the black power movement was the Black Panther Party, founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. This party organized the use of self-defense in the accomplishment of black justice and was right up Noah’s alley.


Stella: Beyond the Colored Line

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Revising The Stella Trilogy: A Behind the Scenes Look

Tomorrow will mark five years since I released the first book in The Stella Trilogy. Wowzers! I am celebrating by introducing the new cover to book one and two. If you haven’t heard, I removed the books from amazon for some much needed polish and am re-publishing them. To learn why check out the blog post “Quality Over Quantity: Why I Pulled My Trilogy from Amazon.”

While I changed the cover to I am Soul after its release and got a new cover to The Aftermath, my first novel (2012), I’ve never wholly revised my backlist before. The Stella Trilogy is getting an entirely new makeover, which includes editing, covers, formatting, and ISBNs. Why go through all the work for an old book?

Books do not expire. Every book is new to people who have never read it which is why it benefits Indie Authors to go back and update “older” works every now and again. Here are some things I saw needed work on Stella:

Editing – It wasn’t enough to slap a new cover on the books. I knew these books had to be revamped altogether. Like most newbie Indie Authors, I had a friend to edit the first version of these books because I didn’t have the money to pay someone. This time around, I am getting the books professionally edited.

Song Lyrics – The first book had song lyrics in it—rookie mistake. You need permission to include the words to a song in your books. I promptly removed those lyrics. I can’t afford to get sued.

DIY Covers – I like the cover to book one, but it was a DIY premade from Derek Murphy’s website, offered freely to authors. I added the image of the black woman, but the rest was unoriginal. I cringed every time I saw it on his site. Book two was more original as I purchased the winter lady image, but it was still poorly applied to the cover. I did everything in Microsoft Word, and since I didn’t know that super-thin books don’t need a spine (if there aren’t enough pages to warrant one) when the books printed the spine folded over to the front. Yuck. For this reason, new covers were something I knew I needed to get done.

Free ISBN – I am done with the free ISBN game. Listen, if you don’t include the cost of the ISBN in your book budget, you are still a beginner. Have I always purchased my own ISBN? No. ISBNs are expensive, but having your own is worth it. They (ISBNs) are also cheaper if you buy them in bulk. 10 ISBNs can cover ten different books. Applying your own ISBN number to the book ensures that your imprint name will be applied to the book. In other words, you are the publisher, not KDP, and not Lulu. This time around, all books in The Stella Trilogy will have its own ISBN so I can register the books to me.

BONUS: Alternate Ending – I am excited about adding an alternate ending to excite Stella fans who have already read the books. The conclusion to book one is not the ending of the original book one. Why the change? It is to tighten the link between all the stories for a smooth transition from one book to the next.

Lessons I learned so far:

Work with what you have until you can do better.

You don’t have to know everything to start. I didn’t. Work with what you have until you can do better. (If a free ISBN is all you have to work with right now, use it until you are able to move up. I did.) I do not regret putting Stella or my first books out there, even though they weren’t properly edited, and the covers were DIY. These books gave me my start, and the courage and the freedom to step out on my own. These books gave me my beginning, and I am forever thankful to Yah for them.

Then, when you can do better, please do it. 

The other part of this, though, is doing better once I knew better. If I produce mediocrity, I will only get mediocre results. Once you’ve stepped out there, it is okay to go back and change what you see needs work. We may not be perfect, but this doesn’t mean we cannot strive to maintain a level of excellence in all we do, even if the best we can do still falls short. We don’t have to stay at the same levels in the latter part of the journey as the first. We can tweak and correct and improve with time. We have that freedom, to sharpen, and to elevate.


About The Stella Trilogy

Readers reading Stella. Circa, 2015.

Stella is a work of Historical Fiction and is distinctive in its focus on one woman’s road to self-discovery, against the backdrop of the African American fight for justice, racial equality, and freedom. We discover how three individuals living in separate periods strive to overcome the same struggle, carefully knit together by one blood. The three-part series features elements of enslavement, Jim Crow, Passing, and the Civil Rights Movement.

Behind The Original “Friends”

Note: Due to the content of this post I am filing it under Black History Fun Fact Friday. 

Erika Alexander (Max/Maxine Shaw/Pam, Living Single) did an interview with The Breakfast Club (I want to say it aired yesterday?? 1/29) that brought out some interesting facts. (Funny because she was not supposed to be a regular on Living Single but…). Like I tell people, Black History INCLUDES music, television, film, art, and much more.

Yvette Lee Bowser created Living Single for Warner Bros and it debuted in 1993. One of the original suggested titles was Friends. Asked if he could have any show on TV, NBC’s President said Living Single. Queen Latifah’s show’s suggested title was called My Girls when they first did their pilot according to Erika Alexander, but it didn’t do well. The networks then chose Living Single, and then the next year they named a separate show Friends. But you got that much from The Breakfast Club. Let’s go a little deeper.

To go further, I wonder why it was decided to call the black show Living Single? Did it have anything to do with black families being largely headed by single women at the time? I am still researching the specifics for 1993 ( the year Living Single debuted) but so far the numbers continue to increase for single-family households in the Black community at the time. In 1991, 68% of Black children were born outside of marriage. In 2011, 72% of Black babies were born to unmarried mothers. In 2015, 77% of Black babies were born to unmarried mothers.

What was really behind the networks naming this show “Living Single?”

Was it the stereotype or assumption that Black men weren’t present that led them to the decision that the black show should be called Living Single? (“We are living Single…”) instead of Friends? (Because I mean, the sistas on Living Single were Besties, you hear me? They were really Friends. Sooo I got questions…)

I know ya’ll probably think I’m reaching so …if you think this is too far-fetched, consider Good Times.

Good Times only had a father figure because Esther Rolle fought for one. 

Originally, the show would be based on a single woman raising her kids in the projects in Chicago (I am from Chicago AND I grew up in the projects, trust… we know these things). Rolle said no, she wanted a father for her children and she became a pioneer in fighting for a black father on TV: George Jefferson (played by Sherman Hemsley) on The Jeffersons, Cliff Huxtable (played by Bill Cosby) on The Cosby Show, Phillip Banks (played by James Avery) on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The list goes on and on but one woman opened the door for a complete black family to be shown on television and her name is Esther Rolle. 

Good Times was revolutionary because it broke ground not only by showing a low-income family on television but also, a COMPLETE black family. The list of shows Good Times inspired is too numerous to mention, including NBC’s 227 in 1985, Regina King’s first breakout role. Then, in 1989, ABC launched Family Matters as their answer to 227. UPN sought to create the magic of the Cosby Show with Moesha in 1996. It goes on and on and down hill from here…

“I just thought it was a poor representation of what Black women were being able to do. And frankly, if you didn’t fit in that mold, there was nothing you could do. It was like watching a train wreck. I actually didn’t think it was real at first. Took me a long time to sort of  get that, no this is real, and yet, it’s not real.” 

– Erika Alexander on the Reality TV Shows, The Breakfast Club

The black father was the hardest legacy Rolle fought for. She grew up with one and an intact family; she wanted that to be shown on television. “I had a wonderful father,” said Esther Rolle, “and I couldn’t bear that television virtually ignored black fathers. I could not compound the lie that black fathers don’t care about their children,” she said previously in media reports. “I ruffle a lot of feathers. And I’m also selective–that makes you a troublemaker, but so be it. I laid a cornerstone for black actors, and that makes me happy.”

Although Rolle worked hard for a black father, they still eventually killed James off. So, I ask, what was the real reason behind naming the “Black” show, Living Single Hmm? That is the question.