Any Black person who refuses docility in the face of white violence, policing, and carcerality must be made into a lunatic.


A history of forced institutionalization in service of white supremacy

by Amber Butts and Sherronda J. Brown 

This essay discusses medical racism and ableism, sexual and reproductive violence, and patient neglect and abuse

The origins of psychiatry, medical racism, and intentional mental destabilization and institutionalization are key influences in deeming someone “crazy” or a “lunatic”. These distinctions have been instrumental in the systematic policing and incarceration of marginalized people by the nation-state. Moreover, within these institutions, Black reproduction is targeted and penalized through gendered violence, coercion and abuse.

Before the Civil War, the concept of insanity was used as pro-slavery propaganda. Secretary of State (1844-1845), John C. Calhoun once said about the 1840 US Census data, “Here is proof of the necessity of slavery. The African is incapable of self-care and sinks into lunacy under the burden of freedom. It is a mercy to give [them] guardianship and protection from mental death.”

Mental asylums began housing formerly enslaved Black folks in increased rates following the Civil War in an attempt to maintain control, whereas they mostly only admitted white patients prior. Many Black people were easily deemed “insane” because they directly challenged the social order. White people guiltlessly indulged their violent urge to institutionalize and incarcerate Black people as retaliation for their emancipation. 

The discrepancies of care between Black and white patients were stark. On asylum grounds, white gravesites were well kept whereas Black gravesites went unmarked, neglected and often collected various debris, with reports of exposed remains coming up from the ground. Colored asylums often underreported death rates, sometimes leaving out the fact that patients died in their care altogether. “Medical staff” were also often designated to the care of Black patients without any formal training, schooling or degrees. 

The Black Lunatic: A history of forced institutionalization in service of white supremacy

Patients at Crownsville Hospital for the Negro Insane in Maryland. 1954.

RELATED: Black people aren’t resistant to mental health treatment. We’re resistant to framing it as a cure

A report from Virginia’s Central Lunatic Asylum for the Colored Insane contains a record of a patient named Godfrey Goffney who allegedly set out to kill every white man. 

“The supposed cause of his psychosis, along with that of several other patients, is listed as ‘freedom.’ Patient Rose Warren ‘Will not work now free.’ Caleb Burton, who fancied himself on a ‘mission to free the world’, suffered from ‘delusional insanity’ stemming from ‘freedom-result of war.’ This depiction of freedom as the cause for [a] patient’s maladies is clearly intended as an indictment of emancipation. This is consistent with attitudes towards emancipation and slavery held in the south before the war.”

After the Civil War, in an attempt to discourage Black residents from leaving the South, legislators claimed displaced persons would become “mentally ill”. This pathologization was a direct descendant of the manufactured malady of drapetomania, an illness said to be what drove some enslaved folks to flee the plantation in search of freedom. 

The white imagination necessitates that any Black person who refuses docility in the face of white violence, policing, and carcerality must be made into a lunatic. 

But what does sanity mean to the Black lunatic? What is the nature of Black lunacy, or the possibility of Black sanity, in a system hellbent on driving us insane? Is fracturing from this reality not a perfectly rational way to respond to white supremacy? Is madness—when “a sound mind” means to accept one’s oppression—not a comfort, a refuge, and a direct challenge to the conditions that make it possible?  

The Black Lunatic: A history of forced institutionalization in service of white supremacy

Patients at Crownsville Hospital for the Negro Insane in Maryland. Photo by John J. Stadler, December 15, 1950.

In both England and the United States one’s name could be submitted to the lunacy commission, which supervised the treatment of “lunatics” and designated said persons to a mental asylum. Once admitted into these asylums, and often even before their arrival, individuals doubled as patients and prisoners who had no right to appeal their incarceration. These decisions, made with limited documentation but still considered legitimate evidence, often included what someone overheard or witnessed from blocks away. 

There were also, unsurprisingly, an overwhelming amount of Black queer folks sentenced to prison and other institutions for “deviant behavior” through this process.

Psychiatric institutionalization, like chattel slavery, functioned to bolster the idea that Blackness is animality. Black folks by extension were non-human, non-thinking, always uninhibited beings. 

Black minds and Black bodies were commodities and considered public and private property to always be categorized in relation to their proximity to slavery, or rather, captivity. Black folks were not of “sound mind” enough to be free and thus, could not contribute to the well being of the general population, or be trusted enough to function as full citizens, given their lunatic status.

Black landowners were also targeted by the government, and admitted into hospitals and asylums so that their property would be designated back into the hands of white plantation owners. Black landowners weren’t believed to have the wherewithal to grow, build and sustain their properties even though they had been growing and sustaining white property for centuries under chattel slavery. This continues to this day. 

In the 1950’s, poor Black women who’d been institutionalized and deemed lunatics or mentally unstable were regularly discouraged from becoming mothers. Eugenics programs within the United States had common practices of coercion and forced sterilization, even when the state had falsely imprisoned them. 

Black women were often forced into asylums under the guise of needing support and protection from themselves. Ultimately, it reproduced and strengthened the centuries old practice of women being traded off between fathers and suitors, and never considered to have the capacity to determine the trajectory of their own lives.

In 2011, a task force convened in North Carolina to determine what reparations were owed to Black people who had been victims of the state’s forced sterilization programs. An estimated 7,600 Black North Carolinians were forcibly sterilized by the Eugenics Board before the post-Civil War program ended in 1974. 

A woman named Australia Clay testified as the daughter of one such victim. “Now I don’t know if North Carolina wants to hear this or not but this is North Carolina’s holocaust. We need a wall. We need a library,” she stated. Australia’s mother was forced into Cherry Hospital by her husband after she’d had a nervous breakdown due to domestic abuse and postpartum depression. She was held there for twelve years and sterilized without her consent. 

The pathologization of Black pregnancy and childbearing—after centuries of propaganda surrounding Black sexuality and reproduction—presents Black birthgivers as immoral, sinful, uncontrollable, and sexually irresponsible lunatics. All of this is directly linked with mythologies about the sexual deviance and non-human animal nature of Blackness. 

Ronald Reagan’s targeted reanimation of Black women as welfare queens beginning in the 1960s cannot be separated from the bedrock racist history of insanity and eugenic violences. The regular attempts to surveil, police and control behaviors and mannerisms deemed unnatural or dangerous were often done under the guise of genuine concern, community safety, and child welfare. However, the social, economic and religious benefits to categorizing Black folks as lunatics are cruel and lucrative. 

Black children in particular, were imprisoned at “Hospitals for the Negro Insane” for anything ranging from epilepsy, and syphilis to nervous ticks and insomnia. These children were also often misdiagnosed and then forced to perform manual labor on the property and nearby farms, further strengthening the connection between Black folks and carcerality, and the belief that even Black children must always be producing for this world. 

The Black Lunatic: A history of forced institutionalization in service of white supremacy

Children held at Crownsville Hospital for the Negro Insane in Maryland. Photo by Robert F. Kniesche, January 11, 1949

RELATED: For Black people who avoid mental health treatment for reasons other than our “culture” or fear of malpractice

Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman most known because John Hopkins University stole her cells during a biopsy, never knew about the theft. Her daughter Elsie was also committed to a mental institution at age 10 because she had epilepsy. She died there five years later. These two experiences highlight how Black bodies and minds, especially when deemed female, are not allowed to be their own. Henrietta and Elsie were both imagined as property, and property never belongs to itself. 

Colored asylums and hospitals, like prisons today, had high mortality rates. Maryland’s Crownsville State Hospital, founded in 1911, documented that 30 percent of its patients died inside. Patients and prisoners throughout wards meant to “rehabilitate” them, were exposed to shock therapy, metal probes in their brains, windowless “dorms”, and injected with countless diseases like malaria and syphilis. They were also chained to beds, chairs, and tables and often isolated (solitary confinement) as punishment.  

Birthing children under bondage was a reality that our ancestors knew, and even now, Black folks are still giving birth in chains while incarcerated or institutionalized. Experiencing childbirth in this manner, especially when childbirth is already so dangerous for Black folks, has a detrimental impact. According to a 2017 report from the American Psychological Association, “[Birthgivers] subjected to restraint during childbirth report severe mental distress, depression, anguish, and trauma.”  

It calls up the memory of reproductive violences on the plantation and how the pregnancies and labors of our ancestors were an integral part of the industry of slavery. The births of Black babies were regarded as a (re)production of property and cargo, rather than the arrival of human lives into the world, and often were used as collateral for debts, even after slavery was “abolished”. 

Black childbirth is often still understood as a production of material goods, as a creation of a thing that can easily be abandoned. It’s the dehumanization of Blackness occurring at the precise moment that a Black being enters this plane of existence. We are already marked ones when we arrive here. 

We arrive here and we live out a life that is, in every sphere, informed by our Blackness. So much of our experience has been marked by medical institutions and white understandings of Black pathology and arbitrary signifiers of that pathology. Even now, Black folks find themselves forcibly committed mental institutions for owning an expensive car or calling out racism in their workplace

The perceived lunacy of Black folks in the white imagination gives the world a convenient excuse not to hear us when we speak about our experiences with anti-Blackness and make calls for accountability from those complicit in white supremacy. The physical, environmental, mental and structural violences produced by white supremacy create the conditions for Blackness to be situated as animalistic. 

It promises that our minds and bodies will always be ground for censure, dis(pos)ability, and madness, contributing to the ableism and poor reproductive care that many of us are exposed to because of widely-accepted mythologies about Blackness. These truths and many more are laid bare when we look at the history of Black folks, insanity, and carcerality in white society. 


Additional Reading: 

Black Interiority, Freedom, and the Impossibility of Living by Calvin Warren

“Lunacy under the burden of freedom”: Race and insanity in the American South, 1840-1890 by Mary Wingerson  

Black Women, Mental Hospitals, and Public Housing — A California Carceral Story by Siobhan Brooks