Friday, December 7, 2007

Friday Dead Racist Blogging: Drapetomania Edition

In order to alleviate their consciences and their gods, slaveholders had to concoct all sorts of theories to justify their pernicious lifestyle: God is okay with slavery; God in fact cursed blacks to be the slaves of other races; blacks weren't capable of coping with freedom; blacks actually didn't mind slavery; etc.

But wait... wouldn't that last one be easily disproven by the existence of runaway slaves? Well, slaveholders could always invent ways around that. Slaves who ran away, they said, were being corrupted by outsiders--Northerners and abolitionists; but left to themselves slaves were happy. Or you could take the route Samuel Cartwright did, who invented a word that I don't think ever really caught on: drapetomania. Drapetomania, he explains, was "the disease causing negroes to run away."

Well, although that's the subtitle for the article where he talks about it, in truth he's just saying that if you're neither too lenient nor too harsh, slaves will have no reason to want to run away. Despite this, Cartwright (who you may recall had some problems with logic) declared it a madness when they did.


Drapetomania is from δραπέτης, a runaway slave, and μανια, mad or crazy. It is unknown to our medical authorities, although its diagnostic symptom, the absconding from service, is as well known to our planters and overseers, as it was to the ancient Greeks, who expressed, by the single word δραπέτης, the fact of the absconding, and the relation that the fugitive held to the person he fled from. I have added to the word meaning runaway slave, another Greek term, to express the disease of the mind causing him to abscond. 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. I was born in Virginia, east of the Blue Ridge, where negroes were numerous, and studied medicine some years in Maryland, a slave state, separated from Pennsylvania, a free state, by Mason & Dixon's line--a mere air line, without wall or guard. I long ago observed that some persons considered as very good, and others as very bad masters, often lost their negroes by their absconding from service; while the slaves of another class of persons, remarkable for order and good discipline, but not praised or blamed as either good or bad masters, never ran away, although no guard or forcible means were used to prevent them. The same management which prevented them from walking over a mere nominal, unguarded line, will prevent them from running away anywhere.

To ascertain the true method of governing negroes, so as to cure and prevent the disease under consideration, we must go back to the Pentateuch, and learn the true meaning of the untranslated term that represents the negro race. In the name there given to that race, is locked up the true art of governing negroes in such a manner that they cannot run away. The correct translation of that term declares the Creator's will in regard to the negro; it declares him to be the submissive knee-bender. In the anatomical conformation of his knees, we see "genu flexit" written in his physical structure, being more flexed or bent, than any other kind of man. 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 bearing towards him, without condescension, and at the same time minsters to his physical wants, and protects him from abuses, the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away. "He shall serve Japheth; he shall be his servant of servants," on the conditions above mentioned--conditions that are clearly implied, though not directly expressed. According to my experience, the "geny 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 lost 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 negroes run away, unless they are frightened or panic-struck, they become sulky and dissatisfied. The causes 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 otherwise 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 to 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 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 required 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.

Being robbed of their freedom, you see, wasn't enough to warrant "sulkiness and dissatisfaction." Surely there was some other cause than being reduced to chattel.

But as you can see, there's not really any argument here--certainly nothing medical or scientific, despite his proclamation to have discovered a "disease" and its "cure." It's really just the same old assertion that Genesis 9:25 means that it's okay for whites (Semites, or sometimes Japhetites) to enslave blacks (Hamites). Yet by defining the desire to be free as a mental disease, Cartwright could shift the debate (such as it was). Under this view abolitionists would be Pestilence, trying to spread a disease to these poor, defenseless negroes who can't really cope with freedom anyways. It was just another trick to try to proclaim moral right by setting up slavery as not only a Biblical but a biological and medical good.

1 comment:

nemogbr said...

THank you for this article.
We came across this due to research regarding the controversy in the Last Airbender movie and the institutional racism of Paramounth studios and Hollywood.

I have never come across the term before and we wondered why people used the "racism card" argument so much.

That people are being racist towards white caucasians, for wanting a film, based upon East Asian and Inuit cultures, to be played by East Asians and Inuit actors.

THank you again.