Drapetomania of the 21st Century

Dwayne Moore, University at Buffalo

For over 300 years, people racialized as “black” were held in captivity as slaves. Women and men were raped, brutalized, and mentally, physically and spiritually, dismembered. The former slave Olaudah Equiano in his biography stated, “These overseers are indeed for the most part persons of the worst character of any denomination of men in the West Indies. Unfortunately, many humane gentlemen, by not residing on their estates, are obliged to leave the management of them in the hands of these human butchers, who cut and mangle the slaves in a shocking manner on the most trifling occasions, and altogether treat them in every respect like brutes.” (Equiano, 1789,105). With the hardships that many slaves endured, many attempted to flee in hope of freeing themselves from the horrors their servitude placed upon them and the understanding that even in the worst of conditions, their lives still had value. The blatant denial of recognizing black people as equal did not stop after the conclusion of slavery in America, but continues to deny people their basic human dignity and rights into the 21st century.

Dr. Samuel Cartwright, a Harvard-educated physician, conducted research and coined the phrase “Drapetomania” as a disease that was the cause of running away. In The New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, Cartwright said, “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 are located on the borders of a free state, within a stone’s throw of the abolitionists.”

Dr. Cartwright effectively removed the responsibility for the reaction of the slaves to the brutality faced by the slave owners, to the slaves themselves. Cartwright found that these problems were inherent traits of the Negro rather than an offspring of the situation the individuals were placed in. He wrote, “The northern physicians and people have noticed the symptoms, but not the disease from which they spring. They ignorantly attribute the symptoms to the debasing influence of slavery on the mind without considering that those who have never been in slavery, or their fathers before them, are the most afflicted, and the latest from the slaveholding South the least. The disease is the natural offspring of negro liberty–the liberty to be idle, to wallow in filth, and to indulge in improper food and drinks.”

The hypothesis that the negro was somehow inherently inferior by birth, has been studied and justified in many academic journals of the time. While many, if not all of these studies have been largely shown to be nothing more than a cruel myth, they speak to a much larger phenomenon within the United States, white supremacy. White supremacy is the idea that everything connected to whiteness is superior on the mere premise that it is white. Slave owners believed and invested in the ideology that the negro was an inferior being and that their servitude was a godsend destiny to prop their own insecurities of their humanity.

White supremacy is as American as baseball, apple pie, and Nascar. It is undeniably a deep root that stems to the creation of this metropolis that sits atop the world. Dr. Cartwright may, or may not have been cognizant of the reality that white supremacy was being used to justify the obstruction of black bodies in this country, but his findings did nothing less than to fuel the rage and fury placed upon the Negro skin. Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Faces, White Mask,

“I am black; I am in total fusion with the world, in sympathetic affinity with the earth, losing my id in the heart of the cosmos — and the white man, however intelligent he may be, is incapable of understanding Louis Armstrong or songs from the Congo. I am black, not because of a curse, but because my skin has been able to capture all the cosmic effluvia. I am truly a drop of sun under the earth.”

Instead of reflecting upon the circumstances created that would make an individual flee, knowing the consequences would be nothing short of mercifulness. But still choosing to run to better themselves, Dr. Cartwright, as many others of his time, studied and found the issues rested upon the destitute. They proved inept with being able to understand the pain of people they view as the “other”, nevertheless to see the humanity of their souls. This is the only way in which white supremacy can survive, by creating smoke screens in which the oppressor has justified their oppression by pushing that narrative that they are legitimized in their heinous actions. While slavery, in the form of forced servitude, may have ceased, white supremacy, and it’s tricks of deception are alive, and as equally, if not more potent in the 21st century.  

What we are learning, and how it is taught, is crucial to how we see the society in which we live. In an article in The New York Times by Manny Fernandez and Christine Hauser, Texas Mother Teaches Textbook Company Lesson in Accuracy wrote:

“It talked about the U.S.A. being a country of immigration, but mentioning the slave trade in terms of immigration was just off,” said Ms. Dean-Burren, who is black. “It’s that nuance of language. This is what erasure looks like.” They also wrote Texas textbooks — and how they address aspects of history, science, politics and other subjects — have been a source of controversy for years in part because the state is one of the largest buyers of textbooks. In 2010, the Texas Board of Education approved a social studies curriculum that put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, including emphasizing Republican political achievements and movements. State-sanctioned textbooks have been criticized for passages suggesting Moses influenced the writing of the Constitution and dismissing the history of the separation of church and state.”

There is no coincidence of how the events of slavery were falsely articulated. There is an active need for the oppressor to reshape history to hide injustices and glorify its mere existence at any cost. It is impossible to learn from history and make the proper decisions to better the lives of those disenfranchised when the history learned is nothing short of deception. To discuss slaves as immigrants, changing the perception of a time period of brutally forced servitude, to an immigrant who chose to migrate, it is not only disrespectful to the people who had the rights to their own body stripped for profit, but also dangerous to future generations and how they perceive the past. History repeats itself, but only those who know the truth will be able to make the connection. White supremacy continues to be a potent underlying factor when evaluating the impact the prison industrial complex and police brutality has had on the black community.

There are endless statistics that clearly indicate the difference in the imprisonment rates of black and whites, or the common use of force to delete a black body from the earth that does not occur nearly as frequently to whites. According to the article The Top 10 Most Startling Facts About People of Color and Criminal Justice in the United States, while only making up 13% of the population, African Americans make up 40% of the prison population, and about 70% of school-related arrest are students of Latino or black backgrounds. According to a Washington Post article which conducted a study on police brutality in 2015 found, blacks are killed at a rate three times higher than whites, black men who account for 6% of the population, accounted for 40% of the unarmed deaths and more data that displays a wider issue around policing in America. After watching the bodies of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and endless others disappear, protesters again had to take to the streets and plead their humanity.

During the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement, which attempted to bring light to the injustices faced by many black Americans, a potent rebuttal was created called “Blue Lives Matter” in a show of solidarity and support for officers regardless of how much blood they spilled or black bodies they canceled. Many supporters of Blue Lives Matter hold the belief that the victim’s co-signed their death by not being “compliant” or “respectful”. Bill O’Reilly stated “If Trayvon Martin had been wearing a jacket like you are and a tie like you are, Mr. West, this evening, I don’t think George Zimmerman would have any problem. But he was wearing a hoodie and he looked a certain way. And that way is how “gangstas” look.”  This is modern day Drapetomania. Just as Dr. Cartwright blamed the slaves mental condition and inherent inferiority on why slaves would flee justifying their captivity, O’Reilly effectively does the same by blaming Martins decision to wear a hoodie, likening his appearance to “gangstas” and diminishing the innocence of a teenage boy to a stereotype of black men whose lives are seen as not valued enough to at least stand trial. O’Reilly believes if Trayvon would have just carried the oppressor’s apparel of a blazer and tie, then maybe his life would have been valued a little more, regardless of the fact that he was simply walking to a store to nourish his hunger.

O’Reilly and Dr. Cartwright are subconsciously saying, “If black people were more white, then we could finally see the value in them.” White supremacy finds every reason to justify it’s heinous acts, simply because being white is superior, meaning whatever contortion, in any form on the black body, is still superior in its connection to whiteness, leaving no room for questioning or examining the damage done. A slave owner can not conceptualize why a slave would run away when whatever they provide is better than anything that can be provided on their own, regardless of the rape, whippings and brutal labor. Many white Americans cannot grasp police brutality because it is a privilege to live in the country that the white man provided, so whatever callous treatment you may experience here, is a small price to pay to live among those with beautiful blonde hair, and crystal blue eyes.

We will never progress as the United States until we finally address the white supremacy that is the thread used to stitch together this nation from East to West. We must not allow this system to make us question the humanity of black skin, but the lack of humanity one must possess to convince themselves that their perpetual cycle of violence on each other and the black body, was justified on the premise of being the superior race. If the concept of the “nigger” was created by those in need of one, then the creator must hold the responsibility of deconstructing it, as the “nigger” that has evolved under your servitude, your rash, and your teachings, shall hold no responsibility for their actions once set free from your supervision as they are only following the script that you wrote.