"Suitable Care of the African When Afflicted With Insanity": Race, Madness, and Social Order in Comparative Perspective


This article examines the historical parallels and convergences between ideas of racial difference in the Anglo-American psychiatric community and concrete practices of inmate management in mental institutions in the postemancipation United States and colonial sub-Saharan Africa. It maps the theories and rhetoric of racial hierarchy that characterized psychiatrists' thought regarding the etiology of mental illness among people of African descent and the specific pathologies to which they were subject. Taking a closer look at Saint Elizabeths Hospital, a federal mental institution in Washington, D.C., the article explores the ways in which these theories of racial hierarchy translated into the actual management of black bodies. It ultimately argues that in order to fully comprehend the role of race in the history of the asylum in the United States, historians need to familiarize themselves with the history and historiography of colonial psychiatry.