Our culture of anti-Blackness has been shown to contribute to the emergence of psychosis for persons discriminated against based on minority status. In general, people from ethnic minority backgrounds typically experience more significant psychological distress, which is linked to poor mental health outcomes. Moreover, as Merrick Pilling has observed, “[t]he confluence of anti-Black racism and misogyny, also known as misogynoir, means that Black women are even less likely to be believed and more likely to be blamed for the violence they experience.”
New work by Jess Waggoner draws our attention to how feminist literature on disability is complicit in misogynoir and the erasure of Black women’s experience of distress outside the asylum. Highlighting the racialized metaphors for madness used by white feminist authors, Waggoner challenges feminist scholars of disability to “attend to the ways narratives of madness utilize Black women as a device to bolster white women’s sanity.”
Further, scholars who focus on critical histories of madness in asylums miss an essential part of the story of mental distress, including other confinement modes such as imprisonment and the criminalization of Blackness. Thus, as Waggoner writes:
“To flesh out our historical and literary understandings of race, madness, and Black feminist critique, we must look to spaces outside the asylum for locations of confinement and enforced labor for Black women experiencing mental distress.”
Indeed, there are inevitable gaps and silences in medical and psychiatric histories due to the systemic devaluation of Black women’s experiences. Waggoner posits that “centering Black feminist literary expression in the early twentieth century can remap our feminist genealogies of mad critique.”
Strikingly, Waggoner observes that “one might ask if the genealogies of mad activist movements might more appropriately be situated not just with the work of white, middle-class psychiatric survivors but also in long-standing Black creative expression that critiques structures of confinement and incarceration wholesale, recognizing that approaches to and treatment of mental distress vary widely based upon the racial, gendered, and class position of the person experiencing this distress.”
Contemporary scholars such as Christina Sharpe and Saidiya Hartman work to fill silences in the archive of Black history and the transatlantic slave trade through works of memoir and speculative fiction; in Waggoner’s work, Black feminist literature of the 1930s and ‘40s, specifically the work of Marita Bonner, help complete a picture of Black life during what Pauli Murray termed the “Jane Crow” era. A close engagement with this literature reveals that “Black women were long pathologized while many white women were afforded a narrative of rehabilitation.”
How does the exclusion of Black women from psychiatric narratives manifest itself today? As Waggoner’s critical reading reveals, the figure of the Black woman in distress emerges in works from Jane Eyre to The Yellow Wallpaper as the “mad figure deserving of confinement” that, in turn, bolsters the sanity of the white female protagonist; or, alternatively, becomes a deracialized figure for the liberatory potential to white feminist audiences.
“These canonical feminist texts of madness,” writes Waggoner, “posit that in order to be a legible mad feminist figure, one must be white.”
Waggoner’s work provides a necessary corrective to “feminist” histories centering primarily white, middle-class women in the story of the struggle for disability justice. It also checks our ongoing tendency to use racialized metaphors for madness and depression when it is “cast as adversarial” – “a black hole;” or “an enveloping darkness.”
These metaphors of madness, which reveal the intimate entanglement of sanism and anti-Blackness in mainstream thought and discourse, are pointedly questioned in Meri Nana-Ama Danquah’s 1998 memoir of depression:
“But what does darkness mean to me, a woman who has spent her life surrounded by it? The darkness of my skin; the darkness of my friends and family. I have never been afraid of the dark. It poses no harm to me. What is the color of my depression?”
Ultimately, the relative precarity and material inequality forced upon Black women – especially Black women in distress – shape both the experience of madness and its genealogies. While Black women face ongoing criminalization and violence in stark disproportion to white women, the history and future of madness and mad liberation cannot be written without centering Black stories and Black thought.
Waggoner, J. (2022). “Race, gender, and sanism: remapping mad feminist genealogies.” Signs, vol 47 no. 4, pp. 885-904. (Link)