top of page

"Drapetomania" & The Ghosts of Language

The year is 1851, One of America's most respected and widely published doctors, Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright, pens an article in the popular News Magazine De Bow's Review.

In the article, titled "Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race", Dr. Cartwright discusses two diseases which he claims are unique to African Americans.

  1. "Drapetomania" - a disease which causes slaves to run away.

  2. "Dysaethesia Aethiopica" - a disease causing "rascality" in black people, both free and enslaved.

In the case of Drapetomania Dr. Cartwright makes his diagnoses plain ...

"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 ... 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 ... without condescension, and at the same time ministers to his physical wants, and protects him from abuses, the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away."[1]

De Bow's Review magazine was a monthly publication that boasted and marketed itself on its ability to "recommend the best practices for wringing profits from slaves". By 1861- start of the Civil War - De Bow's Review was the most widely-circulated southern periodical. [4] It was the "Fox News" or "DailyWire" of its day.

Dr. Cartwright was by all accounts the most prominent surgeon and medical scientist in antebellum Mississippi. He published more than eighty articles in the National medical Press on a spectrum of topics, winning many medals and prizes for his original research and contributions to medical literature. Consider that for a moment. His influence extended beyond medicine, and he involved himself in state and national politics, becoming a widely known slavery advocate and publishing articles on slave physiology and health ...

"If treated kindly, well fed and clothed ... and not overworked or exposed too much to the weather, they [African enslaved] are very easily governed--more so than any other people in the world ... if any one of more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good require that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which it was intended for them to occupy."[1]

When Ignorant, Racist Fools Set Terms

Nearly 200 years later, it's hard to know for certain if Dr. Cartwright actually believed the totality of his inane theories or if he was merely a self interested clown like Ben Shapiro, Sean Hannity and other voices we endure today. I'm not sure the difference actually matters.

By 1836 Dr. Cartwright's celebrity and lucrative medical practice allowed him to take his family on an eighteen-month European tour, which he documented in a two-volume diary. In January 1846 Cartwright was elected as first president of the Mississippi State Medical Society. [2]

Cartwright built an impressive career and stature as an authority in the field of medicine, a cultural leader, and a prolific Journalist. He capitalized on this social clout and celebrity by catering to the needs of a well established market and national demographic; landed white men. By counseling the established white southern slaveowners on how best to psychologically manipulate and discipline their lessers, the market would reward him handsomely.

Dr. Cartwright was far from alone. Many more southern Medical professionals would offer their professional expertise to bolster the case for chattel slavery [3] as both a therapeutic necessity for the African enslaved - who would otherwise have no life purpose or direction - and as a medical and moral responsibility for their White masters. Dr. Cartwright sought to mainstream his debilitating, racist ignorance as medical fact. [3] And he was White enough to almost pull it off.

"It [drapetomania] 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."[1]

Dr. Cartwright's words - even the silly ones he invented - would carry profound cultural weight, setting the tone and framework for how his throngs of readers perceived. How they behaved, thought about themselves, and the nature of Reality.

Armed with Ghost-Language like "drapetomania" - and its undergirding Logic - the average, uncurious 1850's white man would not see the natural and reasonable expressions of enslaved people as evidence of their human dignity, nor as evidence of the chattel system's inhumanity. Instead, in his mind, defiance of his narrow sense of normal serves as further evidence of the innate difference between he and them.

He will have to train his mind to experience reality in it's Truth. To allow for a new experience. Rather than experiencing the lens and the limiting words, given to him by people like Dr. Cartwright.


Defy Labels. Do You Authentically.

You have the same power as anyone else.

To name things and create stories that will manifest as tangibly real. Labels and language can and will create & define reality.

Define YOURSELF, not others, on YOUR terms ... and with YOUR language.

Even if it's incomprehensible to outsiders who are looking to "place" you, for their narrow understanding, or to validate their narrow ego and story.

Your narrative creations will validate you - they should validate and accept you - even when external observers seem incapable. Accept your best self and give it language. Take the steps as that person. Persist, and ready yourself to receive, to have, and to be who you are.





Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page