The last book I worked on today, Gateway to Freedom by Eric Foner (original edition from W.W. Norton, 2015; large print coming soon) had this gem in an early chapter describing slave escapes that stopped me in my tracks:

There were enough escapes that the southern physician Samuel A. Cartwright claimed to have identified a malady previously unknown to medical science: “drapetomania,” a “disease causing Negroes to run away.”

I don’t ordinarily read much of the books I typeset — if I did, I would never deliver them on time — but I saw this sentence because the hyphenation checker stopped at the (so-called?) word “drapetomania.”

I am no illiterate when it comes to American history, and that includes the “peculiar institution,” but I had never encountered this notion before. “Well, why WOULD a slave want to leave his/her master? It can’t be for freedom, and it can’t be because I hit them all the time; they MUST be ill!”

Foner then quotes the famed architect Frederick Law Olmstead who, noting that white servants were known to abscond with some frequency, said with some snark that perhaps black slaves had caught this “disease” from them.

Oh, America…..


About songdogmi

I'm a longhaired almost-hippie stuck in the inner suburbs of a major rust-belt metropolis who's thoughtful, creative, and kind of geeky. In exchange for a paycheck I run around in a cubicle maze most days. When I escape, I play music, hang out in coffee houses, dink around on the computer, take naps, and think I should be off in the woods somewhere. Every once in a while I get in my car and drive far, far away, though I've always come back so far.
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