A Look at the History of Black Mental Health

By Von McKnight

 

(Content warning: mentions of suicide and rape.)

 

“I loathe my kind, which is humankind. We maim and taint whatever we encounter. We might improve but I don’t think so.”

Margo Jefferson, late 1970s

 

Depression in Negroland

At one point in her novel, in a way that feels remarkably like whiplash, Margo Jefferson bluntly starts a new section of her story with, “In the late 1970s, I began to actively cultivate a desire to kill myself” (170). This particular line hits hard despite previous mentions of suicide, of which there are a couple in this section; she briefly talks about boys in Negroland who killed themselves for unknown motives (though it is heavily implied that they had something to do with various family issues). She then immediately frames the relationship between girls and death a little differently: “Negroland girls couldn’t die outright. We had to plot and circle our way to death, pretend that we were after something else, […]” (165). In the extremely unfortunate circumstance of having to contemplate one’s death, girls nonetheless felt more obligated to save face for reasons the author never really delves further into.

Margo goes on to comment on how, at the time, “freely yielding to depression” was “[a] white female privilege” (171). She describes how depression among white women was marked as a complexity, which I interpreted as something to be seen as different or quirky, rather than an illness. It made the overall suffering of white women (who at the time were engaged with the feminist movement) seem more “beautifully tragic,” or something along that vein. That is not to say that white women’s struggles with depression were not valid, just that it was framed differently, as far as other people were concerned.

Meanwhile, racism aside, black women had a lot more to deal with re: women’s rights. Battling racism on a daily basis, and sexism on top of that, had to have taken a toll on their mental strength. The white community expected black women to be strong, dutiful, able to endure anything; they had overcome slavery, so why could they not overcome feeling a little blue sometimes like everyone else? Especially in Negroland; there was the added pressure of maintaining the social status the black elites worked so hard to achieve and maintain.

Margo Jefferson herself felt as though she was given permission to contemplate suicide, phrased almost as though it were a daydream of hers, after playwright Ntozake Shange (a person the author looked up to) said on stage, “And this is for colored girls who have considered suicide” (175). This was similar to a speech act for Margo, similar to “You are under arrest,” “I do,” or “Guilty.”  With this utterance, there was a shift in Margo’s life, in that it was now okay for her to pursue the idea of suicide.

Margo went on to engage in several morbid hobby-like tasks: she kept a notebook to write out the thoughts that were weighing her down; she researched suicide methods; she studied suicide notes; she outlined and drafted her own suicide notes. In her mind, it almost seemed romanticized. She says as much, claiming she “knew that unrequited death is as futile as unrequited love” (177). In her mind, if she was going to do it, she was going to do it right. Her death would have to “set an example for other Negroland girls who suffer the same way” (177). It seemed like death was not just a burden to her. It was also a performance, in a way. She felt that she needed to maintain her image until the very end, should she actually pursue it.

Margo Jefferson’s musings with regards to depression in general are all more or less condensed in one section of the book. For the majority of the reading, you would not have the faintest idea she was feeling this way. In fact, it almost feels as though Margo herself did not know how she was feeling until the late seventies, but that is more difficult to pinpoint with her writing style.

 

Brief History of Black Mental Health

Jumping back to before the time of Negroland, the practice of diagnosing mental illnesses among the black community has an ugly history. From the diagnoses themselves down to the treatments, time and again it ends up just being more and more abuse inflicted by white people on rebellious, defiant, or simply unlucky slaves. Diagnosing and treating mental illnesses also acted as a catalyst to performing “medical experiments” on slaves, which ultimately just meant more torture. By all rights, a lot of the diagnoses were not even for legitimate mental illnesses; they were an excuse to punish slaves for perfectly reasonable reactions to how they were being treated.

An example of a diagnosed mental illness is drapetomania. This was coined by physician Samuel Cartwright in the 1850s as one probable reason to explain the phenomenon of slaves fleeing captivity. That in itself is so ludicrous, one has to wonder how he was ever allowed to practice medicine – at least until you remember slaves were seen by many as being less human than whites. Unfortunately, there are other instances throughout the nineteenth century of doctors pondering why slaves were not interested in being forced into labor, beaten, raped, and generally treated like the scum of the earth.

Founding Father Benjamin Rush came up with a term in the late eighteenth century, Negritude (not to be confused with négritude, which is a twentieth-century philosophy), which was ascribed to as being something more like leprosy than a mental illness. He claied that the only cure for it was for the black individual to become white. There is no mention beyond that of how exactly one would change another’s race.

Suffice to say, there were even more disgusting experiments performed on black people under the guise of helping them recover; one of which involving an icepick being swirled around in someone’s brain. Further reading on this topic will reveal the extent to which the mental illness label was abused to further the torment of an already suffering people.

It was even worse in mental hospitals, which barely qualified as such. Doctors had asylum-admitted black people confined in one location, where they could basically do anything they wanted with them in the name of research. Blacks deemed “insane” were tossed into buildings with horrible environments that did not at all promote recovery. While asylums in the nineteenth-century on the whole tended to be more unpleasant than not, blacks and whites sentenced to insane asylums were not housed together because doctors believed it would ruin the progress of their white patients. While asylums for white patients could be called unpleasant, asylums for black people were flat-out inhumane.

Throughout the history of slavery, black people were punished, abused, and tortured for the high crime of not wanting to be a slave. The majority of the diagnoses were not made in their best interests, and instead were used to take advantage of them. While things have gotten significantly better as the years have passed, around Margo’s time there was a still a huge stigma attached to vocalizing depression.

 

Wrapping Up

All of this ties into the overall theme of our course this semester, showcasing just some of the many, many hurdles throughout time that African Americans had to jump to get where they are now, and where they were at the time of Negroland.

 

Sources

Warner, Tony. “A most disturbing history of black mental health.” People With Voices. N.p., 10 Sept. 2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

Jackson, Vanessa. “An Early History – African American Mental Health.” An Early History – African American Mental Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

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