Talk: Psychiatry and Disability in the American South by Kylie Smith

The Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine’s working group in disability and mad studies provides a forum for scholars from around the world and in a number of different disciplines to come together to share their work.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021 12:00 pm to 1:30 pm EDT
Title: Jim Crow in the Asylum: Psychiatry and Disability in the American South

Zoom link available upon registration to the CHSTM’s group on disability and mad studies.

In the United States plantation system, psychiatric and medical discourses were central to the creation of beliefs about the alleged inferiority of the enslaved person in both body and mind. Physicians invented mental illnesses to pathologize normal reactions or resistance to the brutality of slavery. These ideas did not disappear at the end of the Civil War but continued to permeate the emerging profession of psychiatry into the twentieth century, creating an epidemic of trauma through the mistreatment of disability and mental illness. In this project I draw on extensive archival sources to show the ways that Southern psychiatric hospitals in the mid twentieth century had become home to many thousands of Black patients with mental and physical disabilities, where treatment and care was custodial at best, violent and abusive at worst. From the process of admission, to misdiagnosis and lack of care, psychiatric hospitals in the Jim Crow South were no place of asylum for Black patients. They functioned as symbolic and actual spaces of institutional terror, approached by Black communities with caution. Yet they were also the scene of important Civil Rights activism in the 1960s which revealed the ways that psychiatry functioned as a tool of white supremacy. This activism led to the end of segregation, but could not fix the racism that underpins the provision of mental health and disability care today.

Kylie Smith is Associate Professor and the 2021-2022 President’s Humanities Fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University. Kylie teaches the history of race and US health care in both the School of Nursing and the Department of History at Emory. Her previous book “Talking Therapy: Knowledge and Power in American Psychiatric Nursing” was published by Rutgers University Press in 2020 and was awarded Book of the Year from both the American Journal of Nursing and the American Association for the History of Nursing. Her new book project called “Jim Crow in the Asylum: Psychiatry and Civil Rights in the American South” is supported by a grant from the National Library of Medicine

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