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Theaters of MadnessInsane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture$
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Benjamin Reiss

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780226709635

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: March 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226709659.001.0001

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Saneface Minstrelsy: Blacking Up in the Asylum

Saneface Minstrelsy: Blacking Up in the Asylum

(p.51) Chapter Two Saneface Minstrelsy: Blacking Up in the Asylum
Theaters of Madness
University of Chicago Press

This chapter explores the life of a curious blackface minstrel troupe composed of patients at the New York State Lunatic Asylum. Performing several times a year for patients, doctors, and visitors, they turned a famously carnivalesque popular form into a therapeutic diversion for other patients in a display meant to convince the outside world—and perhaps themselves—that they, unlike the black characters they mocked, were capable of rationally managing their affairs in the modern world. The chapter also examines patients' writings about these performances, in which they reflect on how the social categories of blackness and mental alienation resemble one another. This discussion encompasses an analysis of the interplay between strategies of confinement and uplift common to plantation slavery, the colonial enterprise, and institutional psychiatry. The chapter uses the episode to argue that the “civilizing process,” which proved such a potent argument behind Euro-American colonization and enslavement of blacks, also structured the relations between doctors and patients.

Keywords:   blackface minstrel troupe, New York State Lunatic Asylum, patients, doctors, blackness, confinement, slavery, institutional psychiatry, civilizing process, colonization

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