Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Drapetomania and Rascality

It's a bit of a leap from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to drapetomania, but Maggie Koerth-Baker nimbly makes the connection in her recent New York Times column about ADHD.

Drapetomania, for those like me who have never heard of it, was a once-diagnosable condition that caused enslaved people to run away from their enslavement. It had a companion illness, Dysaesthesia aethiopica, which had the common name of "rascality" among plantation overseers. Rascality was laziness and unwillingness to work.

Because the doctor who came up with these bits of medical genius had trouble sorting out cause and effect, one of the primary symptoms of rascality was thought to be lesions on the skin. You know, the kind you might get if you were whipped.

The doctor in question, Samuel A. Cartwright, died in May 1863, just after the Emancipation Proclamation and everything that came after it. If he were with us today, I'm sure he'd still be getting lots of work, although I like to think he would be doing it without a license.

I plan to see a cinematic example of drapetomania and rascality in the movie Twelve Years a Slave, which opens this weekend.

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