• La Shawn L. Splane-Wilburn, Founder of Homagi

Black History Month 2015 - Mental Health Series: Drapetomania The History of Oppression & It&#39

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It is unknown to our medical authorities, although its diagnostic symptom, the absconding from service, is well known to our planters and overseers...

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.

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 hearing towards him, without condescension, and at the sane time ministers to his physical wants, and protects him from abuses, the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away." - "Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race," by Dr. Cartwright (in DeBow's Review)

When reading the excerpt from Dr. Cartwright one would be hard pressed not to believe the doctor suffered from some sort of psychosis. How would you otherwise explain the belief system that kidnapping "people" from their homeland, selling them like livestock, separating children from their families, beating them, forcing them to work without pay, and killing them for wanting to or trying to escape or for sport. It's hard to understand how someone reading such "ridiculousness" would actually agree with Dr. Cartwright but history shows us there were others, countless others who not only shared the doctors views but enforced them on their own hostages they called slaves.

In order to understand the atrocities suffered by the Africans at the hands of slave masters and overseers one would have to dissect slavery at a very basic but very human level. Let's start with the kidnapping.

"In general terms, the psychological impact of being taken hostage is similar to that of being exposed to other trauma, including terrorist incidents and disasters for adults12 and children.13

Typical adult reactions include:

1.: impaired memory and concentration; confusion and disorientation; intrusive thoughts (‘flashbacks’) and memories; denial (i.e. that the event has happened); hypervigilance and hyperarousal (a state of feeling too aroused, with a profound fear of another incident);

2.: shock and numbness; fear and anxiety (but panic is not common);14 helplessness and hopelessness; dissociation (feeling numb and ‘switched off’ emotionally); anger (at anybody – perpetrators, themselves and the authorities); anhedonia (loss of pleasure in doing that which was previously pleasurable); depression (a reaction to loss); guilt (e.g. at having survived if others died, and for being taken hostage);

3.: withdrawal; irritability; avoidance (of reminders of the event).

Denial (i.e. a complete or partial failure to acknowledge what has really happened) has often been maligned as a response to extreme stress, but it has survival value (at least in the short term) by allowing the individual a delayed period during which he/she has time to adjust to a painful reality. For example, some hostages in the Moscow theatre siege initially believed that the appearance of the heavily armed Chechnyan rebels was part of the military musical performance.15

Two extreme reactions have also been noted, namely, ‘frozen fright’ and ‘psychological infantilism’.16 The former refers to a paralysis of the normal emotional reactivity of the individual, and the latter reaction is characterized by regressed behaviour such as clinging and excessive dependence on the captors.

Extended periods of captivity may also lead to ‘learned helplessness’17 in which individuals come to believe that no matter what they do to improve their circumstances, nothing is effective. This is reminiscent of the automaton-like state reported by concentration camp victims (‘walking corpses’).18

Genuine psychopathology has also been noted. A follow-up study of ransom victims in Sardinia found that about 50% suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and about 30% experienced major depression.19 The International Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders (ICD-10)20 also recognizes the ‘Enduring personality change after a catastrophic experience’ (F62.0) as a possible chronic outcome after a hostage incident. This condition is characterized by:

  • a hostile or mistrustful attitude;

  • social withdrawal and estrangement;

  • feelings of emptiness or hopelessness;

· a chronic feeling of being ‘on edge’ as if constantly threatenened"-

o Kidnapping and hostage-taking: a review of effects, coping and resilience (Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine)

So we have right at the start of the Africans arrival PTSD. Imagine not being able to communicate with your kidnappers, or understand what they are saying on top of all of the chaos. Surviving the brutal trip over in cramped quarters with dead bodies, immersed in fecal and other bodily fluids very traumatic! So many movies and stories have been told and made about the "African Experience" during the Slave trade yet none have ever really addressed the effects on the people kidnapped and held captive.

Let's take a look at PTSD

"When in danger, it’s natural to feel afraid. This fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to prepare to defend against the danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a healthy reaction meant to protect a person from harm. But in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this reaction is changed or damaged. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they’re no longer in danger.

PTSD develops after a terrifying ordeal that involved physical harm or the threat of physical harm. The person who develops PTSD may have been the one who was harmed, the harm may have happened to a loved one, or the person may have witnessed a harmful event that happened to loved ones or strangers." -

What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? National Institute of Mental Health (hyperlink: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml)

A fight or flight response. One would agree that being ripped from your home, stuffed in a ship, sold like and animal, beaten, rapped, witnessing violent murder of family and or friends would qualify for "fight or flight" response would they not? "

PTSD can cause many symptoms. These symptoms can be grouped into three categories:

1. Re-experiencing symptoms

  • Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating

  • Bad dreams

  • Frightening thoughts.

Re-experiencing symptoms may cause problems in a person’s everyday routine. They can start from the person’s own thoughts and feelings. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can also trigger re-experiencing.

2. Avoidance symptoms

  • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience

  • Feeling emotionally numb

  • Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry

  • Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past

  • Having trouble remembering the dangerous event.

Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. These symptoms may cause a person to change his or her personal routine. For example, after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car.

3. Hyperarousal symptoms

  • Being easily startled

  • Feeling tense or “on edge”

  • Having difficulty sleeping, and/or having angry outbursts.

Hyperarousal symptoms are usually constant, instead of being triggered by things that remind one of the traumatic event. They can make the person feel stressed and angry. These symptoms may make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating..." -

What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? National Institute of Mental Health

How do you justify not calling slavery kidnapping and what the slaves suffered as a result of those conditions PTSD? "When Africans were taken from their homes and forced into slavery, they were separated from mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers and were torn from extensive kinship networks. Enslaved in the British colonies of North America or the free states of the American Union, the ability of Africans to reestablish nuclear families and familial support systems depended on many factors including the needs and desires of the slave owner. As the circumstances of slavery changed across time and place, the opportunities for slaves to marry, have children, and create stable family units fluctuated..." - The Slave Experience: Family (Slavery and the Making of America)

PTSD and an unstable family and social structure. Slaves were not allowed most times to marry whom they chose. "At the center of Ghanaian society is the institution of family. Sustained through a series of kinship networks and marriages, the family is acknowledged as the bedrock of all social life. The family is not only the basis of Ghanaian social organizations, but is also the main source of social security in old age (emotionally and financially) and the primary or sole caretaker for the young. The family is the basic unit of production and distribution and serves as the main agent for social control. More important, marriage continues to be the main locus of reproduction in a region where marriage is virtually universal (van de Walle and Meekers 1994)." Ghana - Family Structure, Family Formation, And Family Life- Marriage, Social, Lineage, and Ties

"The institution of family" Merriam Webster defines "institution" as:


noun \ˌin(t)-stə-ˈtü-shən, -ˈtyü-\

: an established organization

: a place where an organization takes care of people for a usually long period of time

: a custom, practice, or law that is accepted and used by many people

Pay close attention to the second definition "a place where an organization takes care of people for a usually long period of time". Family was at the heart of many of the african slaves, deeply embedded into their identity. Now families were ripped apart and spread to the four winds. Mothers would never see their children again. Imagine that scenario today in your home or witnessing it happen to other family or friends the thought sends sensations of ice water down my spine. Yet this i what the africans in slavery were subjected to.

Most of us today have many traditions passed down our family line, our parents were either better or worse than their parents. Generational ails are passed down just like grandmas dimples. To get a better analogy or clearer picture imagine a bundt pan everytime you pour cake batter into it, bake it, cool it, remove it, the indentations will be there matching the exact indentations on the pan. Every kidnapped, enslaved, PTSD suffering, traumatized, dysfunctional african passed down to their offspring the coping mechanisms and social ills learned from their experience. Those same mental illnesses would become commonplace and a normal for children who would come generations down the line. What exactly would you expect from conditions meant to emasculate the African man by forcing him to watch his wife and children violated by rape, beatings, being set on fire and hung. How could turning the african woman into a "breeder" like livestock, with no say over her body as to who used it sexually or being forced to abandon her own suckling children to become a wet nurse for the slave masters children. What about the children forced to become orphans, sold into child sex trades, young girls turned into breeders and their young bodies ravaged by slave masters and overseers? Mental Illness would be prevalent among the slaves, they just wouldn't know what it was called. I'm not a historian, nor do I purport to have every fact and or resource of the "History of the African Slave", but I'm the great grand daughter of an African Slave from Memphis Tennessee who lived to see her family become "freemen", and who shared her experiences as well as the experiences of our family who came before her.

Much of my family's history I am proud of, some of it is difficult to talk about, but was neccessary for my recovery. I'm a depression and anxiety survivor. I'm alo a Family Caregiver to my son who was diagnosed with Bipoloar disorder and schizoaffective disorder.

I know that depression is very common in my family now. I understand actions that were made when I was a child. My family like many, overcame much adversity and worked very hard to build a life for themselves and their families.

My great grandfather Earnest Hess and great grandmother Georgia Hess (matrilineal) and their six children migrated from Memphis, Tennessee to California where my great granparents worked in factories and saved their money, brought property (personal & rental) and opened a cafe. While they passed down an impeccable work ethic to their children and the importance of entrepreneurship, they also passed down alcoholism, mental, emotional, and physical abuse. My grandmother would marry my grandfather who was a great provider and hard worker but also physically abused her and was an alcoholic until he accepted Jesus in his life. What I didn't know at the time about our family was how much mental illness ran rampant through generations. There was always an excuse for the aunt who would fight anyone or anything...she had a bad temper. The aunt who would go from extremely happy and skipping around at family functions to crying uncontrollably later at the dinner table. The squabbles between uncles who swore someone was talking about them because they were looking at them. The black eyes on aunties from domestic abuse suffered at the hands of their husbands. The uncles who couldn't keep still and talked in circles. The uncle who stayed in the room and only came out to get food or more alcohol from the store. The list goes on and on. When you are raised around people who are what is known in the AA community as a "little touched", not "right in the head", or a "little throwed off" you come to think of it as normal, nothing out of the ordinary. Many people don't talk about family "business" or "skeletons" in the closet of families because it's taboo. What happens in the house stays in the house.

Our hope is to start chipping away at these belief systems. The only way to heal or communities is to openly address mental illness, and it's effect on our families and communities. We will be discussing in the coming days how our communities are set up to create poverty and how poverty affects how children learn. How many children in urban communities are being misdiagnosed as ADHD when they are actually suffering from PTSD. It's time to address the ailments that have plagued our families for generations and discover solutions to heal and get the diagnosis and or treatments to live a more full and fulfilling life. History is bound to repeat itself if we do not learn from it. This "Black History Month" we are focusing on Mental Health in our communities and the history of mental illness and it's affect on our families. It's time to heal. "I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves."

Harriet Tubman

#BlackHistoryMonth #BlackHitoryMonth2015 #Drapetomania #BlackHistory #MentalIllness #MentalHealth #PTSD #Trauma #Slavery #EffectsOfSlavery #DrSamuelAdolphusCartwright #DrSamuelCartwright #Oppression

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