Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Theaters of MadnessInsane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture$

Benjamin Reiss

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780226709635

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: March 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226709659.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM CHICAGO SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.chicago.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright University of Chicago Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in CHSO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 27 July 2021

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

Abstract and Keywords

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

Blackface Minstrelsy

has taken many twists and turns through the course of American culture. Originating as a series of song and dance routines traded by black and white workers along the piers and canals of New York in the early 1830s, it quickly developed into a kind of cross-racial musical street theater of the urban proletariat. Characterized by dancing that was alternately fast and grotesque, coarse and, at times, satirical lyrics that were pointed at the moralizers of the upper class and the bourgeoisie, and musical structures that sounded to outsiders like “noise,” minstrelsy was the first explosive, propulsive popular form of youth-oriented American performance. By the 1840s, however, numerous performers had managed to cash in on the phenomenon, bringing minstrel routines to stages across the country—particularly in the Northeast—and even across the Atlantic.1 During this period of commercial takeoff, minstrelsy increasingly fell under the control of cultural entrepreneurs, who successfully broadened its appeal beyond the original audience of rambunctious, sometimes rebellious young men. Professional troupes began to form, and theater managers advertised evenings of “Chaste, Pleasing and Elegant” entertainment safe for a middle-class clientele.2 The form at this point hardened into a standardized set of routines and playlets with room for improvisation built in, a structure that let customers know what they could expect while also offering the promise of novelty. Increasingly, as it became commercialized, routinized, and stripped of some of its oppositional social content, the minstrel routine also emphasized racist caricature that masked the cross-racial, class-based alliance that had given birth to the form.3 With a few notable exceptions, the (p.52) performers at this point were all white men in burnt cork and grease, and the halls in which they performed admitted no black people as spectators. The spectacle that they presented was one of black antics, aversion to work, and unintentional double entendres, which served both as mockery of the unsophisticated or pretentious black characters and as subtle upward jabs at the social elite they presumed to mimic. With an afterlife that stretched from vaudeville stages and early cinema to rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop, minstrelsy has remained a potent—and generally noxious—vehicle of racial trespass and a seemingly inexhaustible resource for commercial culture.4

But of all minstrelsy's many gyrations—more even than those of the perpetually jumping Jim Crow—perhaps none is more surprising than the formation of a troupe of blackface performers among the patients in the New York State Lunatic Asylum in the 1840s and 1850s. Upon contemplating this scene, one is immediately confronted with a set of ironies. In masking themselves, the outcast actors imitated figures who were equally outcast—the slaves and urban Northern blacks who were tarred by blackness much as the actors themselves were stigmatized by the label of insanity. They enacted scenarios of slave life for the ultimate captive audience; and under the watchful eye of the asylum authorities, they turned a famously unruly form into a spectacle of their own capacity for self-control. From behind blackface masks, they spoke to each other, to their doctors (who doubled as their captors), to the curious townsfolk and even politicians who were occasionally given admittance, and to themselves—all in different codes, some still faintly decipherable, others no doubt lost somewhere in the transmission from performer to observer to print record to twenty-first century historian. What actually happened on stage is almost irrecoverable, but most of what remains of these performances is an extraordinary archive of written responses by fellow patients published in the Opal. In dozens of articles, poems, dramatic sketches, and strange hybrid pieces, these writers left behind a collective record of excitement, guilty pleasure, disgust, perplexity, fantasy, possibly hallucination, self-reflection, and—most poignantly—cross-racial identification in the face of the minstrel shows.

Reconstructing the strange career of blackface minstrelsy in the lunatic asylum presents an unusual opportunity to watch what happens when an official culture collides with an explosive popular form. First, there is the push-and-pull generated by the authorities' attempts to regulate the patients' behavior through carefully controlled cultural activities and the patients' powerful urges, sometimes unconscious, to express their own alienated feelings. Erving Goffman describes the “disculturation” or “untraining” of (p.53) subordinates that is invariably a goal of the managers of total institutions: a systematic attempt to dispossess inmates of the culture of their “home world.”5 But while the Utica minstrel shows certainly speak to this process, they also bring into view some of the repressed cultural currents that the asylum regime could not ultimately sanitize. Patient writings often construe a taste for minstrelsy as a cultural relapse into the kind of unruly, nonproductive behaviors that their doctors and attendants tried to stamp out; but their comments on the shows are also a demonstration of their progress in the “civilizing process” that supposedly structured the relations between whites and blacks, as well as between doctors and patients.

The story thus presents us with an unusual encounter—mostly imaginary, but with powerful real-world consequences for the actors—between two marginal groups that were often understood, and misunderstood, in relation to each other. Blackness and madness were two social categories that justified both the social marginalization and custodial care of supposedly subrational populations. Blacks and the insane were denied property rights because they lacked the capacity to manage that most important of all properties: themselves.6 Surprisingly, however, this linkage sometimes worked to join blacks and the insane not just in a mutually reinforcing cycle of marginalization but also in a discourse of uplift and regeneration. Both groups were the objects of schemes of moral improvement that stretched from locales as far apart as the asylum at Utica to the plantations of the South and on to the former American colony in Liberia. In donning the mask of blackness and the veil of anonymity in the Opal, patients traced these routes in a fantastical twinning of self and other, noise and refinement, rationality and madness.

The asylum's stage was the scene of a complex set of desires, imperatives, fears, rewards, and identifications. On the doctors' side, it encompassed the desire for control of the patients' cultural lives, a bone thrown to restive inmates, an opportunity for surveillance and discipline, a therapeutic tool, a chance to display their humanitarian management. On the patients', it was a reward for good behavior, a diversion from boredom, a taste of forbidden pleasures, and an opportunity to advertise one's self-management; but it was also a humiliating reminder of their similarity to the downtrodden figures they portrayed on stage. There are perhaps two main strands here: discipline and race. The goal of the shows was to promote order by carefully managing scenes of disorder. In the fictional world of the show, the disorder that was portrayed on stage was imputed to the blacks who were represented. Their supposed nonproductivity, lack of decorum, and inadequate (p.54) equate control of bodily functions (including sexual ones) were the negative example against which the patients were supposed to measure themselves. The discipline surrounding the spectacle was in studied contrast to the antics on stage.

The Shows Began

on November 30, 1847, when a group of patients at Utica put on a “great bill” of theatrical fare before their doctors, attendants, and fellow patients. Included were an original play in three acts, a number of songs and recitations, dances, and, to conclude, a sketch titled “ETHIOPEAN SAYINGS AND DOINGS.”7 The event proved so popular that similar productions were carried off annually, and then as frequently as quarterly, through the 1850s. And almost always, they concluded with “ETHIOPIAN EXTRAVAGANZAS,#x201D; in which patients delineated the ways of “Sambo, Ned, Jim, Gumbo, Cato, Bones, and Quambo.” Not only male patients, but “our fair Southrons”—women who lived in the asylum's South Wing—performed in blackface, a rather rare occurrence in minstrel productions of the time.8 On at least one occasion, a professional blackface troupe from New York visited the asylum to perform before the patients. The patients were so excited by this that they formed their own troupe, called the Blackbird Minstrels, which gave full-length performances on three consecutive nights in January 1856, with music provided by the patients' own “darkie band.”9 The outside community was sometimes allowed admittance, and even the governor of New York—probably the Whig John Young—attended one performance.10 A few issues of the Opal contain almost nothing but a running commentary on minstrelsy. And all this received the blessings of Amariah Brigham and his successors, Nathan Benedict and John P. Gray.

How did this come to pass? The simple answer is that stage shows were part of the normal routine of asylum diversions, which occupied an important part of the moral treatment program at Utica and other centers of the moral treatment movement. Especially in the winter, when carriage rides, farm work, and other outdoor activities were impracticable, keeping the patients busy was a crucial aspect of managing the asylum.11 But “diversion” meant more to the physicians than one might consider—it was in fact a central term in their lexicon of treatment. By “withdrawing patients from accustomed trains of thought, and awakening new ideas,”12 diversions could stimulate “social feelings” among the patients; they promoted exercise and discipline; and they were educative or refining, all of which contributed to mental health.13

The historian Michael Katz has written of the “assault on popular culture” waged in the name of an “‘orderly, predictable, and regular’ routine (p.55) in early mental hospitals” that was “part of the therapy.'”14 Clearly, however, some aspects of popular culture—sanitized to meet asylum specifications—were not assaulted outright but were put in the service of therapeutic routines. D. Tilden Brown—Brigham's assistant at Utica and the man responsible for managing “amusements” there—offered something like an industrialist's justification for the apparent frivolity that reigned in the asylum's stage productions. While in general “employment in industrial pursuits, as a moral agent in the treatment of [mental alienation], proves far more efficacious, and in general, more alleviating to the patient than mere recreation,” steady and productive industrial employment was not always possible in the asylum, especially in the winter months. And even when such labor was possible, he wrote, some of the patients are so maddened that they “pertinaciously object to all other employment” aside from producing theatrical events. For these, such endeavors provide valuable lessons in “combining present gratification and prospective benefit,” or what Max Weber would describe almost sixty years later as the Protestant work ethic. Finally, Brown believed that the hope of participating in the performances provided an incentive for good behavior, and that the spectacle itself was a perfect opportunity for the authorities to practice “that restraining surveillance which [the patients'] conditions require.”15 In short, such activities, far from being frivolous, were instrumental in the disciplining, cultural reprogramming, and management of patients.

And yet there is still something incongruous about a popular form known for catering to the boisterous sensibilities of the working class receiving sanction—even encouragement—in the bastion of genteel reform. Business groups decried “the baneful habit of late hours at night and neglect of business in the morning [that] is the Inevitable Result” of such shows.16 And early psychiatrists warned frequently of the dire mental health consequences of nineteenth-century commercial culture—popular novels and commercial newspapers were kept out of asylum libraries because they were “a prolific source of cerebral disorder”; and asylum managers were enjoined to refrain from exposing patients to entertainments that stimulated “the lower sentiments or propensities.”17 Indeed, early blackface acts staged all that drove the reformers themselves crazy: a heightened and grotesque sexuality, a release from the confining rhythms of industrial discipline, a general breakdown of social order, even an incipient critique of social authority.

In suggesting that even the supposedly “genteel” later minstrel productions promoted disorder, Eric Lott described “the air of a collective masturbation fantasy” that pervaded the shows, which were sometimes advertised with black figures strumming on fantastically phallic banjos18 (fig 5). (p.56)

Saneface Minstrelsy: Blacking Up in the Asylum

Figure 5. Minstrel songsheet, 1827

Insane asylums were citadels of the anti-masturbation movement; superintendents wrote volumes on the solitary vice as both a cause and effect of insanity, and they devised novel ways of stamping it out—from drugs to beds with straps to “blistering” the genitals of offenders.19 In the peak years of the minstrel show at Utica, superintendent Nathan Benedict reported the existence of “one hundred and seven masturbators out of eight hundred and sixteen cases.” The majority of offenders were male patients; these he treated with a combination of “aphrodisiacs,” blisters, and cold baths, while he experimented with “cauterizing the urethra of females.” When these treatments were not effective, offending patients sometimes took matters into their own hands (for the second time, as it were): “One patient in his zeal to conquer this habit subjected himself to severe torture. Another performed upon himself a painful surgical operation.”20 Although patients were careful not to let their associations of minstrelsy with sexual (p.57) excitement show, one did write in the Opal that the craze for popular music, especially minstrel songs, represented a “music mania” that was sweeping through society, affecting even “our own Asylumian abode.”21 What this mania led to she did not suggest.

Still, the superintendents appeared to view the minstrel shows as an effective tool in maintaining order in the asylum, a sort of safety-valve for patients' pent-up frustrations. By far the largest number of patients came from farming or laboring families, for many of whom minstrelsy still must have had a long, class-based appeal. If the upper classes had their libraries, lecture series, and debating societies, then what would motivate the working classes to stay in line? Brown, the assistant physician at Utica, hinted at this when he wrote that it was crucial that amusements cater to “the social position and former occupation of [the asylum's] inmates”22; a superintendent at another asylum mentioned that creating a “better supply of cheap and innocent amusements” was an imperative for those concerned with the national state of mental health. This was particularly important for laborers, for whom “amusements constitute almost the only practicable means for repairing the constant waste of nervous energy.”23

But how could one keep the lower classes in line—and even elevate their condition—with a form of amusement that appealed to the “lower sentiments”? As in the comments of D. S. Welling and Samuel Woodward about the transformations of card playing and dancing from dangerous practices in the outside world into therapeutic exercises within the walls of the asylum (discussed in the introduction), minstrelsy seems to have gone through a similar transformation as it entered respectable realms and eventually passed through the asylum's walls. Even before the asylum's Blackbird Minstrels took the stage, minstrelsy had become an object of reform: its routines were regularized, its songs and dances made less sexually suggestive (at least in their packaging), its protest against the upper classes redirected downward at blacks. In making the minstrel shows “Chaste, Pleasing and Elegant,” safe for middle-class audiences, theater managers were doing to popular culture what the asylum directors were doing to their patients.24 The asylum authorities only extended this process of cultural purification. On the one hand sanitizing popular culture, and on the other creating actors and spectators disciplined enough to enjoy it in rational and orderly terms, the asylum directors were attempting to reorder the whole of social relations as expressed in the stage show.

The few published comments that Superintendent Brigham and his successors made on the productions suggest that they were hardly the raucous (p.58) affairs that had marked the early days of American blackface minstrelsy, or even the relatively controlled mayhem of the commercial extravaganzas that followed. Instead, the shows were presented in an atmosphere that mimicked the neoclassical trappings of more “respectable” theater (fig. 6). At the first performance, Brigham noted that “a handsome drop curtain has been painted by a patient, representing a view of the Coliseum at Rome, with gladiators in front, and in contrast a view of our Asylum with ladies dancing and promenading near it.”25 Only patients from the first and second wards—the sections of the asylum containing the least unruly patients—were allowed to attend;26 they were carefully watched by “the resident officers, attendants and assistants … and occasionally the managers of the Asylum with their families and a few ladies and gentlemen from Utica.”27 Given such tight surveillance, it is unsurprising that “no evils whatsoever” resulted from the performance. Presumably this meant

Saneface Minstrelsy: Blacking Up in the Asylum

Figure 6. Amusement hall at the New York State Lunatic Asylum, ca. 1888

(p.59) no fistfights, riots, thrown vegetables, or other rowdy audience reactions that were hallmarks of early blackface performance; it probably also meant limited audience participation, improvisational openness, or double entendres that still marked the later commercial versions. Patients themselves were aware of the difference between minstrelsy on the outside and the asylum's version. “Pious people say ‘they are wicked songs, not fit to be sung,’” wrote one patient about minstrel tunes in the Opal; but here in the asylum they perform wonders in casting off despair: “When struggling in ‘the Slough of Despond,’ the magic numbers of ‘The other side of Jordan,’ well executed upon a banjo, with a pair of protruding lips caroling the refrain, that ‘Jordan am a hard road to travel,’ has caused the pilgrim to shake off his burden and go his way rejoicing.”28

The reformation of popular culture—or the disculturation of patients—can go a long way toward explaining how the blackface shows were made acceptable, even useful, to authorities, but not what they were supposed to do for the patients. In an atmosphere where every aspect of the environment—down to the construction of heating vents and the positioning of drapes—was said to influence mental functioning (and even brain structure), how would blackface act upon the brain?29 One possible answer comes in the writings of John Galt, superintendent of a state asylum in Virginia, and a leading architect of the moral treatment in the United States. Galt believed that amusements should be employed as a “revulsive” technique—that is, as psychological interventions that would make patients recoil from their own delusions. Especially important in this regard was the deployment of “hilarity,” which would help “supplant the place of delusive ideas and feeling” by exposing them as laughably incorrect.30 Evidence that Galt's notion was in currency at Utica comes from a disgruntled former patient, who nonetheless echoes this likely rationale for over-the-top amusements: “If you can get [the insane] to laugh natural, it is quite apt to explode the whole affair; and they will yield their indigo feelings because the ridiculous impression is the strongest.”31

Galt seems to have been influenced by the thinking of the German psychiatrist Johann Christian Reil, whose theories of dramatic therapy were debated in the American Journal of Insanity. Reil devised bizarre theatrical representations of madness with which to confront delusional patients. These, he argued, were an important part of the moral treatment, since theater was a place where “the fixed ideas of madness are confronted.”32 Additionally, such techniques can be traced back even further, to the origins of the moral treatment in postrevolutionary France. Philippe Pinel, for instance, (p.60) stance, used theatrically staged events to startle or jolt patients into discrediting delusive ideas—for instance, staging a mock trial of a tailor who was convinced that the Jacobins were trying to kill him because he disagreed with their punishment of Louis XVI.33 It was under this therapeutic rubric of theater that the Marquis de Sade was allowed to develop his stage plays at the Charenton asylum.34

Michel Foucault found such acts of “theatrical representation” central to psychiatric practice of the late eighteenth century (or, the “classical age”), in which the medical authority created a scenic version of delusion, carried it through to its logical conclusion, and thereby led the patient to “a state of paroxysm and crisis in which, without any addition of a foreign element, it is confronted by itself and forced to argue against the demands of its own truth.”35 According to Foucault, this “comic purification” of madness through theatrical means was jettisoned in the nineteenth century, which he characterized as ushering in a “return to the immediate” and a “suppression of theater.” Medical authorities, he argued, turned to “nature” (and their mastery of it) to do the curing and rejected the earlier age's structured conversations of madness with itself.36 Brown's and Galt's program in dramatic therapy might seem to refute this sweeping characterization, or at least to represent residual holdovers from the earlier “classical age” and its theatrical tricks. But there is a division in their writing between “comic purification” and something akin to a management technique—a rift, in other words, between theater as therapeutic and theater as opportunity for disciplinary spectacle. Both Galt and Brown agreed that comedy was preferable to tragedy for insane actors, but for different reasons. For Galt, a revulsive “hilarity” produced an opportunity for patients to “supplant the place of delusive ideas and feeling.” In contrast to “farce and comedy,” performances of tragedy by insane actors or for insane audiences were dangerous because they tended to over-stimulate the emotions. Brown seemed to echo this in writing that “mirth and recreation, no longer frivolous or puerile, become dignified as instruments of cure” when cultivated within the moral treatment regime. But “humorous” dramatic presentations did not, in his view, confront ideas of madness head on—they simply helped to control the patients. The minstrel shows were not direct representations of the patients' delusions, as they had been for Pinel and Reil—they were simply stylized models of incorrect behavior. And their staging would “impel the patient to the exercise of self-control, both by suggesting that propriety of behaviour which will secure participation in such privileges, and by engaging the attention to the exclusion of irrational thoughts.”37 Madness no longer confronts itself on stage. (p.61) In the stage shows at Utica, madness was to be tamed, managed, repressed; the mad were treated as objects of rather than agents in their own cure.

Utica's theatrical management of insanity appeared to work, according to Brown. Of the seventeen patients involved in putting on the first performance at Utica, many “have since recovered and left the institution. Others are convalescing…. Among these were individuals who believed, or had recently believed themselves to be the especial ministers of divine will; exalted personages, Roman Pontiffs or Secretaries of State; that by a wave of their hand they could control the movements of railroad trains, and vessels on the high seas; who had, previous to admission, been confined in chains, as dangerous, from their homicidal propensities; who insisted on their own idiocy and ‘inability to think’ even while engrossed in the study of their parts; or whose ordinary conversation denied all attempts to trace coherence or point.” None of the asylum physicians left an explicit statement of how such cures happened, exactly, but most probably would have agreed with Brown's conclusion that “undoubted benefits have accrued from the intellectual application, mental discipline, exercise of memory, and self-control of the performers, and from the diffusion of good humor and hilarity among the observers.”38

Over the following decade, the Utica asylum's programs followed Galt's and Brown's prescriptions for therapeutic (and disciplinary) “hilarity” closely. Stage plays usually involved dialogues of ever-heightening absurdity, such as the patient-authored sketch about the formation of a philanthropic society devoted to prying into the affairs of one's neighbor.39 And the minstrel shows themselves highlighted the ludicrous: a “Burlesque, a la Jullien,” which was a deliberately bad satire of a conductor well-known for his thrilling style, consisting of “a commingling of sounds unharmonious and concord discordant” and long-winded lectures that ended with a temperance plea accompanied by the downing of a glass of liquor.40 In these familiar minstrel gambits, actors used the mask of cork and grease to systematically invert the principles of “correct” bourgeois behavior and to make detection of that inversion laughably easy—much easier, apparently, than the insane found it to be in their ordinary lives.

We Have Now

the official accounts of how the minstrel shows functioned, or, at least, were meant to function. But what of the patients? How did they respond to the carefully controlled disorder on stage? It is particularly disappointing to find that none of the tiny minority of black patients recorded their impressions in the Opal or elsewhere.41 (Frederick Douglass's (p.62) newspaper North Star, however, reported cryptically in 1851 that “the Nightengale [sic] Minstrels … recendy entertained the inmates of the Utica Insane Asylum with one of their concerts.”42) Nonetheless, it is not difficult to imagine the humiliation of black spectators (if they were in attendance), who had clung to a tenuous and marginal freedom in the North, only to find themselves labeled inadequate to the task of self-management. Many white former patients referred to the asylum in their memoirs as a kind of slavery, where labor was compulsory and uncompensated, and where patients were subjected to the whims of capricious attendants, with no recourse for complaint.43 To black patients, slavery must have seemed an ever-present frame of reference; watching fellow patients hoot over the antics of plantation “darkies” could only have compounded the pain of the experience.

Nor do the surviving representations of the asylum minstrel shows give clear voice to the responses of the lower-class white population, who—as shown in the previous chapter—did not generally publish in the Opal. But again, one can imagine a particularly poignant sense of alienation among these patients. In contrast to the studied refinement and inoffensiveness of the asylum spectacles, which one patient described as a “kind, polite, and accomplished performance,” minstrelsy had emerged as a boisterous and vital set of interactions between the black and white workers along New York's system of canals. Trading dance steps and songs after work and during breaks, these workers at the very bottom of the social order fashioned a form of joyous, riotous noise and motion that served both as emotional release and, just as importantly, social critique of those above them. This “mudsill mutuality,” as W. T. Lhamon, Jr., calls it, extended to the subculture of what the reformers called New York's “dangerous classes.”44 A fascinating study by Dale Cockrell shows the prominence of minstrel slang and dance steps in at least one mixed-race gambling hall that was raided by police in 1839.45 Among the Utica asylum's hundreds of patients classified as laborers, it is safe to assume that least some had worked in the 1820s and 1830s along the canals, one of the fastest-growing industries of the period, just as minstrelsy was taking off; many others knew well the urban terrain of the “dangerous classes.” And so what working-class white patients saw on the asylum's stage could only have added to their sense of self-dispossession. Cast against their will into an insane asylum, they were subjected to a performance that appropriated their own form of popular protest against authority, a performance that was deployed in an effort to make them conform, to exercise self-control, and to learn punctuality, discipline, and correct behavior.

(p.63) What we are left with are the writings of the relatively privileged and well-educated staffers of the Opal. As always, their writing is hard to read as directly self-expressive, as the writers seem intensely aware that their offerings will be scrutinized by doctors. Especially in these instances, writing anonymously about masked performances in a scenario in which popular enthusiasm was both elicited and pathologized made the prose all the more guarded and self-conscious—unseemly outbursts of enthusiasm or other inappropriate responses would probably have been held against the authors. And so a sort of clenched gentility pervades the accounts, which sometimes makes it difficult even to determine exactly what is being written about. As one patient rhapsodized, “What fairy fingers wrought those robes of fancy? How gracefully they are carried too! How well they tread the measure, keeping time harmoniously!” As much as this studied refinement veils the character of the spectacle, it reveals clearly the painfully self-conscious performativity that pervaded patients' lives behind walls. To become sane was to act in a certain way and to have the correctness of that performance certified by the authorities over a period of time. Indeed, the asylum as theater is a recurring trope in the writings of patients. In an exposé of her treatment during her time in the asylum, one ex-patient wrote that the “cure” is a matter of acting out someone else's script; any patient who tries to follow it “will find in the end that he is but a forced failure of an imitation creature, if he does not despise the system which inspires him to conceal and bury himself under these seemingly prescribed conventional subterfuges.”46 One Utica patient, responding to the literary and recreational activities at the hospital, clearly struggled to follow this script, which he identified as a code of gentility. “All persons wish to be genteel, and to appear so,” he wrote. “There are various kinds and degrees of gentility: the meaning of the term is sufficiently hidden and indistinct to be expansive and capable of attenuated tenacity of signification. So, if we make knowledge of God most desirably attainable, it will the less disturb our gala enjoyments.” And then, as a heartbreaking coda: “We are not so happy as we wish to be.”47 Every day, patients were expected to perform a kind of saneface minstrelsy; writing about the masking of others, they clung just as tightly to their own masks (fig. 7).

Despite the intense guardedness of the patients' writings, one occasionally gets a sense of the mask being lifted or pierced. One patient, after noting that “negro songs or melodies” are not “proper to be sung anywhere,” seemed eager to get outside the asylum and reconnect with what she perceived to be the real stuff: (p.64)

Saneface Minstrelsy: Blacking Up in the Asylum

Figure 7. Performance at the New York State Lunatic Asylum, late nineteenth century. It is not clear whether the performers are patients or a visiting theatrical troupe. (Collection of New York State Archives)

If I am wicked, I hope to be pardoned for it, and speedily made better; but … when in New York, near the corner of Broadway and Anthony, I should have to shut my eyes to its attractions, or, before I was fully aware, I should be within a well-known music store, [where] I should send … some of [the] courteous employés on an aerial ascent to the upper shelves for comic songs and negro melodies for the young sister in the West, or my tall cousin John, as I've done before.48

Shutting her eyes to wickedness, yet being drawn against her will: this is the record of a guilty pleasure, which her reformation as a patient is devoted to stamping out.

In addition to conflicted feelings such as these, the minstrel shows elicited certain responses that read like printed screams. In the midst of a pain-fully (p.65) refined and florid printed dialogue between two female patients about the minstrel show, one woman refers to the performance as “music armed to the teeth.”49 Whatever that image calls forth, it hardly fits the model of theater as a dignified instrument of restraint, self-control, and cure. The most jarring response to the shows, however, came in a poem written by the frequent Opal contributor “Etta Floyd.” For many years, she filled the Opal's pages with literary criticism, highbrow cultural commentary, and a highly melodious and usually decorous verse. It is Floyd who diagnosed the “music mania” running through the Utica wards—a disease fueled by money-driven performers quick to cash in on society's needs for novelty—the most recent of which was the fad for black or blackface performers. “Some of our best musicians,” she wrote, “if naturally white, or but partially bleached, have acquired a fancy for an Ethiopian skin, imagining, perhaps, that their musical powers will be found increasing in proportion to their personal attractions; or, what may be more probably, supposing a greater number of auditors will be obtained by the expected pleasure of gazing upon white people converted into beauteous black ones.”50

In contrast to the disgust she felt with commercial culture's traffic in images of blackness, Floyd depicted the asylum as a place where she could be shielded from the outside world, and be free to pursue her melancholy, solitary art. How upsetting, then, to find the whole place turned topsy-turvy by minstrels, who brought their infectious noise and its innuendos of frenzy, commercialism, sexual license, and general disorder into the poet's solitary retreat. As recorded in her poem, “The Musqueto Serenade,” her encounter with the blackface minstrels set off a massive persecution and revenge fantasy in which she compares the minstrels to a swarm of attacking mosquitoes who not only whine in her ear with their “dread music,” but drive her to a frenzy by biting her arm until she agrees to give them money.

  • Said a lady, “Ho! Who are these minstrels I hear?
  • “Such a singing and whining, it's sure very queer;
  • “Yet so slyly they come, and so slyly they go,
  • “That I cannot them see, or I'd give them a blow.
  • “I am so tired of their chiming and tuning, ‘tis true,
  • “So you must not be frighten'd to hear great ado;
  • “And beside their dread music, they're biting my arm;
  • “And now tell me, my friends, how can I be calm?
  • “They are biting me still for their songs to get pay;
  • “Now their lives I will take, I most surely do say.”
  • (p.66) So this lady so fair thus on massacre bent,
  • Did so quickly arise with the darkest intent.
  • She said, “Sirs, I have pass'd upon you a decree,
  • “That no longer my face you dread minstrels shall see;
  • “Soon you'll find that your songs of the night will be hush'd
  • “And yourselves, it is true, irrecoverably crush'd.”

The poem goes on for five more stanzas to recount how the “lady” massacres all of the mosquitoes/minstrels but one with her shoe, and this one keeps her awake all night. She constructs a muslin net to keep him out, but alas, the “biter and singer got under the net,” and in the end, she is forced to declare “that those minstrels such cunning had shown / As in all her existence she ever had known.”51

Eric Lott writes that attempts to “master” minstrelsy in the antebellum period almost inevitably wind up succumbing to its power of attraction.52 Here Etta Floyd's rejection of the minstrel “swarm” only leads her to the state of frenzied commotion that she so deplores in popular culture. For her, the contagious disorder of the shows—in which she attempts to keep the buzzing mosquito out from under the net—becomes a figure for her own insanity; this poem records the poet's fragile sense of equipoise in a setting that she struggled to cast as a refuge from a hostile, small-minded world rather than as a prison from which she had little hope of escaping. Indeed, she stayed in the asylum until her death.

Etta Floyd

openly registered her disgust for the “fancy for an Ethiopian skin” that minstrelsy fostered; this perhaps helped her to stabilize the unsettling mixture of attraction and repulsion, identification and disavowal, that pervaded the performances. Participation in the minstrel shows—whether acting, reporting, criticizing, or simply watching—involved mimicking lowly figures in order to exorcise the spirit of wildness, of subrationality, of disorder, that the black figures on stage were meant to represent. Outwardly white and sometimes even of respectable stock, the patients at Utica nevertheless lacked the refinement, social skills, rationality, and above all, the self-control that supposedly separated the sane from the insane, as well as the civilized from the savage or the white from the red or black. In staging a grotesque blackness, they banished from themselves that troubling interior otherness—making visible (and erasable) on the skin what was ineffable, untamable within. When the show was over, they could cast off their subrationality like a snake's skin.53

(p.67) But such acts of miming or surrogacy always imply a certain longing, as well; blackface acts, for all their mockery, would never have seized the popular imagination were they not based on a deep if unconscious desire for black culture and black bodies. Part of what blackness signified in mid-nineteenth-century popular culture was an exemption from all the pressures of civility and modernity to which whites were subject, and which had proven crushing for so many asylum inmates. The temporal regimens of factory life, the fiscal discipline of entrepreneurship, the strictures of middle-class domesticity and sexual morality, the sobriety and spiritual vigilance demanded by Protestant theology: running afoul of these standards earned many nineteenth-century Americans a room with barred windows. But blacks' perceived constitutional incapacity to live up to white middle-class standards of behavior gave them a sort of free pass from adhering to those strictures, and this freedom was endlessly figured on the popular stage. The minstrel logic of the lazy, loose, foolish, fleshy black person was for patients an invitation to reclaim as pleasure and through play all that they were being disciplined to surmount in their asylum routines.54

And so for many writers, the minstrel shows provoked a shock of recognition: not the “revulsion” prescribed by physicians as a mechanism for distancing oneself from one's delusions or the “self-control” necessary to avoid excessive displays of mirth, but a kind of identification with the objects of theatrical display on the grounds of a shared incapacity to be productive citizens, a shared civil or social death. The patients were physically removed from the main currents of life and forbidden to make contact with family and friends, to vote, to write wills, to move about as they pleased. They were considered to be in need of reform, of civilization, of uplift. And in all of these senses, they saw themselves through the lens of race: if they were indeed wearing masks, then behind those masks—some sensed—was something black. One patient, for instance, published a Valentine's Day poem in typical minstrel broken dialect. In it, he poses as Jim Crow addressing a lover who has abandoned him—a poignant topic for anyone left alone in an asylum, made comical only by the author's reference to himself as “Dis Nigga.”55

Such identifications of blackness and insanity did not originate with the patients, nor simply with the society that had confined them. According to Sander Gilman, the association of madness with blackness had its roots in the classical period, when “the melancholic was understood to have a black countenance”; it recurred periodically in Western culture as a way to associate the “other” with wildness.56 Medieval and early modern medical (p.68) commentators reworked ancient theories of humoral imbalances by arguing that a surfeit of black bile caused a variety of mental disturbances and was detectable by a darkening of the skin; along these lines, Shakespeare refers to “sable melancholy” in his Love's Labour's Lost.57 Over time this coloring of madness took on explicitly racial meanings. The English physician and poet Sir Richard Blackmore, for instance, referred to madness (in a 1724 medical work) as a “wild uncultivated region, an intellectual Africa, that abounds with an endless variety of monsters and irregular minds.”58 Enlightenment philosophers viewed the world's races and regions in a developmental frame, in which white, European ethnicity represented rationality, progress, and health; all others were stuck at various arrested stages of psychology, in tellect, and accomplishment. According to Georges Canguilhem, such thinkers as Monstequieu, Voltaire, and Diderot viewed “the intellectually primitive and the intellectually puerile [as] two forms of a single infirmity,” characterized by the “halting of development at an intermediate stage.”59

By the mid-nineteenth century in the United States, concepts of blackness and madness had become so intertwined as to be nearly mutually defining. In the eyes of psychiatry and law—as well as increasingly in popular culture—“savage” or nonwhite races were said to share with the insane a state of arrested or disrupted development that made both seem like overgrown children. Because both blacks and the insane were judged incapable of managing their own affairs in a modern democracy, both groups were stripped of property ownership rights and were considered in need of custody.60 The proslavery ideologue George Fitzhugh, for instance, argued that blacks, like children and lunatics, could not be governed by “mere law,” but must be subject to additional restraints to keep them from crime or from coming to harm.

Children cannot be governed by mere law; first, because they do not understand it, and secondly, because they are so much under the influence of impulse, passion and appetite, that they want sufficient self-control to be deterred or governed by the distant and doubtful penalties of the law…. Very wicked men must be put into penitentiaries; lunatics into asylums, and the most wild of them into straight jackets [sic], just as the most wicked of the sane are manacled with irons; and idiots must have committees to govern and take care of them…. Nor will the government of mere law suffice for the individual negro. He is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child, not as a lunatic or criminal.61

That last clause marks the only real distinction in Fitzhugh's text between the rhetoric of slave-owning paternalism and the system of asylum management, (p.69) for of course the paternalism of insane asylums was meant to train disordered subjects for a life of freedom, rather than of perpetual bondage. Unlike children and lunatics, blacks could never outgrow their wildness and dependency.

The links among insanity, race, and slavery were deepened by the infamous results of the 1840 national census, the first to include demographic data concerning insanity. One finding in particular seemed to confirm the notion that blacks were in need of paternalistic care: while the rate of insanity was virtually the same for Northern and Southern whites, the rate was eleven times higher for Northern blacks than for Southern ones, and six times the rate of insanity among whites.62 The implication was that the more freedom granted to blacks within a modern “civilized” society, the more their feeble brains cracked under the strain. Within a few years, these figures were decisively shown to be cooked—for instance, some towns in Maine reported having a lower total number of black residents than insane black residents.63 Nevertheless, the results of the census were cited not only by advocates of slavery such as Vice President Calhoun64 but even in print by Northern psychiatrists until as late as 1851.65 Blacks, however, were not considered to be unusually prone to insanity—it was only their immersion in the Western world that created special conditions of risk. On the contrary, left in their natural environment, blacks and other “savages” were thought to be practically free from mental illness.66 (This association lasted well into the twentieth century, as a 1921 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry makes clear: American “negroes,” the author wrote, are particularly prone to a certain “psychic weakness” because they are descendant from “savages and cannibals” and are not fit to live in “an environment of higher civilization for which the biological development of the race had not made adequate preparation.”67) Scattershot evidence seemed to bear this out. For instance, when the rebels of the slave ship Amistad were awaiting trial in Hartford in 1839, they made a visit to the local insane asylum and were interviewed by Amariah Brigham, then the superintendent. He asked the rebel leader Joseph Cinqué how the insane were treated in his land, and Cinquéreplied that there was almost no insanity there to treat.68

Patient writings in the Opal bear traces of all of these complex linkages—they point, in other words, to the ways in which insanity was distinctly “racialized” in their thinking and feeling. Even when they did not explicitly link their situation to that of Africans or blacks, they frequently referred to themselves as “children” in need of “civilization,” “uplift,” and “light”—a set of what Sander Gilman calls “root metaphors” of insanity that was also shared by contemporaneous discourse about non-white races.69 In an 1852 (p.70) editorial, one patient wrote that the relations of society to the insane were like those of the “hostile parent” and “infant culprit,” and that if society wanted to see the “reformation” of the child, it had to hold out hope for “reconciliation” as well as “punishment.”70 Another contributor, in a poem about the woes of slaves (“Ah, poor smitten son of Afric! [szc],” could easily have been writing about a patient in the asylum:

  • Flows no tear from pity's fountain,
  •   When from friends thou'rt severed wide?
  • Cares no heart how high's the mountain
  •   That from thy lov'd ones doth divide?71

For many patients who were permitted to publish their writing in the journal, however, the real hinge connecting their situations to those of blacks was not simply the similarity of stigmas of blackness and insanity, the presumed correspondence of the mental condition of the two groups, or the resemblance between the institutions of plantation slavery and asylum medicine, but the linkage between the reform movements that had launched both the moral treatment movement and the colonial enterprise underway in Africa. The “civilizing” missions of abolitionists, ex-slaves, and evangelists that was well underway in the “free colony” of Sierra Leone and the former U.S. colony of Liberia (by then a new republic) curiously paralleled the work of the founders of the asylum movement.72 One strong precursor of the American asylums were the “retreats” for the insane run by Quakers, first in England in the late eighteenth century, and then in Philadelphia; and it was in 1785 that the English Quaker William Thornton lobbied the American, British, and French governments to establish a free colony in West Africa for liberated slaves, including his own.73 Both the proposed colony and the asylums bore a heavy imprint of Quaker influence: they blended humanitarianism and a faith in the “inner light” or spiritual intuition of each individual—no matter how lowly—with an emphasis on thrift and productivity as remedies for backward or wayward peoples.74

These colonial enterprises were begun in what would become Sierra Leone in 1787 and Liberia in 1821. They were both originally private ventures, drawing on the interests of traders and humanitarians to establish outposts of “civilization” in Africa—beachheads from which Christianity and capital could spread across the continent. Government involvement was gradual—Liberia was never officially named a U.S. territory at any point before its independence in 1847. But a coalition of American groups, eventually coming under the banner of the American Colonization Society, continued to administer (p.71) the territory, appointing leaders, establishing schools and churches, setting trade policies, and so forth. Even after Liberian independence, these groups continued to maintain a keen interest in the new republic, raising funds to send former slaves and “recaptives”—Africans seized in illegal slaving expeditions at sea—to Liberia, and continuing their missionary work. Their motives for doing so varied. Some abolitionists believed, following Thomas Jefferson, that freed slaves could never integrate into American society due to the depth of their anger and the depth of white racism; some slave owners even supported the colony as a way to deport troublesome slaves.75

The Opal's pages reflect a keen interest in the fate of Liberia—especially in the plight of former American slaves who were in positions of leadership there—and had a generally sympathetic response. In 1851, in an article called “Africa,” one patient reported that two American missionaries had visited the asylum and spoken to patients about their work in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The piece concluded with a short poem that, not surprisingly, supported the mission in terms that were familiar to anyone with a connection to insane asylums:

  • Afric receive to thy once wretched shore,
  • Those little bands of Christian Heroes,
  • Bearing a balm for all thy woes,
  • A healing balm for thy keenest throes—
  • And God will bless thee.76

“Afric” has become something like a patient, suffering “throes” and in need of “balm.” Interestingly, the Liberian enterprise itself had been imagined as something like a mind cure for the entire race. According to the missionary Robert Finley, Liberia should become a place where blacks’ “contracted minds will expand and their natures rise.” And in the Liberian Declaration of Independence, leaders among the settlers wrote that they came “to nourish in our hearts the flame of honourable ambition … and to evince to all who despise, ridicule and oppress our race that we possess with them a common nature; are with them susceptible of equal refinement, and capable of equal advancement in all that adorns and dignifies man.”77 The Opal poem was signed, as were many pieces in the journal, simply by the word “Asylumia.” The conceit, in this context, turned the asylum into a mythical land, somewhere between colony and nation, supporting its own culture, with its own physical features, and burdened by its own tragic history of deprivation and despair.

(p.72) The association of institutionalization with colonization and disability with racial “otherness” was not unique to inmates of insane asylums. In some ways, the patients found themselves in a situation much like the nineteenth-century deaf, who were similarly segregated from the “normal” population in special schools and asylums, and whose self-conception sometimes mirrored the Utica patients' notion of a separate culture of Asylumia. An 1847 edition of the American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb, for instance, described the deaf as a “a distinct, and in some respects, strongly marked class of human beings” who “have a history peculiar to themselves”; and a deaf educator wrote in 1848 that the deaf “might almost as well have been born in benighted Asia, as in this land of ours.”78 This striking rhetorical similarity may give evidence of some cross-disability identification. Furthering this link is the fact that the Opal exchanged subscriptions with the editors of two deaf-mute journals—the Deaf-Mute and the Radii—and that the editor saw these journals as emanating from kindred spirits: “What need of praise would be too extravagant for those who have ‘borne the burden,’ and paved the way for the glorious advancement of the children of sorrow unto perfection in comfort?”79 (The Opal later complained, however, that the Radii had received a “legislative appropriation of three hundred dollars … but we do not acknowledge the like sum from the great body, for the Opal, nor do we expect to have the pleasure.”80) The racial overtones of this shared disability consciousness—a metaphorical geography that maps the disabled as backwardly non-Western and therefore in need of cultural reformation and spiritual uplift—certainly bear out the disability studies scholar Lennard Davis's comment that “discussions of disability always slide into discussions of race.”81

There is an important distinction between the deaf and insane “races,” however, which may help explain the Opal writer's jealous reaction to his deaf counterpart's funding. Asylums for deaf-mutes in the early- to mid-nineteenth century promoted sign language (or “manual” language, as it was then called) as a means of creating what the historian of deafness Douglas Baynton calls “a cultural and linguistic community,” whereas authorities behind the insane asylums were insistent on stamping out madness.82 Some members of the deaf community exhibited a striking “racial” pride, as in the 1855 proposal of one deaf man, John J. Fluornoy, to create a deaf-only state in the western territories—a state that would eventually function like a deaf version of Liberia. (“A deaf state,” he argued, “is the manifest destiny of our people…. It is a political independence, a State Sovereignty, at which I aim…. We will have a small republic of our own, under our (p.73) sovereignty, and independent of all hearing interference.”83) The notion of Asylumia as a separate state, in contrast, was self-consciously figurative and ironic, its self-deprecation bordering at times on deep abjection rather than Fluornoy's militant self-reliance. For the deaf, creation of a separate language and cultural self-sufficiency were the cure; in contrast, asylum writings and displays were all explicitly geared toward exhibiting the patients' triumph over their disability, rather than their embrace of it.

Despite the Utica patients' manifest needs to assimilate themselves into “normal” American culture rather than create their own self-sustaining identity, their writings about Africa point—like those of the deaf writers—to their intuition of important links between asylum care and the colonial situation. Indeed, a number of scholars interested in the psychology of colonialism have recently begun to explore connections between colonialism and psychiatry, in part by focusing on the ways in which psychiatric practice played out in colonial spaces such as Africa and India. The establishment of mental hospitals in these regions in the late nineteenth century, they have shown, shaped definitions of “European” and “native” in the new European territories by quantifying the mental attributes of each race.84 But as patients confronted the minstrel show in Utica in the 1850s and recorded how the spectacle of racial otherness was in some sense a staging of their own situations, they contributed to an even earlier flow of ideas, associations, and practices between colonial Africa and the psychiatric scene in the West. The anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler speaks of such flows as following a “circuitous imperial route,” in which some practices associated with colonial control over nonwhite races were imported and recycled in the European context, as a way to control troublesome populations at home. Official policies toward beggars, criminals, and the insane were influenced by conceptions of race developed in the colonies; techniques for controlling the one might be used in managing the other.85 It is the emotional logic of that imperial route, as felt by the objects of reform, that some of the patients' writings on minstrelsy convey.

In an 1854 column, A.S.M. reported on the minstrel shows as a meeting of two colonized peoples—the gentle inhabitants of Asylumia and the benighted denizens of Africa. As in his article “Dialogue Between Two Southern Gendemen and a Slave,” he showed throughout his stewardship of the journal a great sensitivity to race relations, frequently seeing in the struggles of blacks a metaphor for the situation of the insane. Not surprisingly, then, he found much to ponder in the performances of the minstrels. Blackface performance, he wrote, was a commercialized rip-off of philanthropy, (p.74) in which “traveling minstrels” co-opt the fascination with blackness and Africa that had permeated contemporary culture. Lately, however, even the blackface minstrels have turned to genuine philanthropy—bringing the civilizing mission back from Africa to the United States: “On several occasions … there have appeared here at the Asylum several companies from abroad, who were prompted by the pure spirit of philanthropy, and came to chase away the dark design of lurking sorrow,—to light up a smile in the aspect of woe; and it was well, for though insanity is a dreadful and serious evil, it may be assailed and overthrown by the lightness, hilarity and mirthful wit of these minstrels from the dark region of Africa.” Prompted by these visitors, “a company from the far-off land of Asylumia, on the hither side of Ethiopia, appear[ed] in the south [evidently the south wing of the asylum]” and “during two successive evenings, did accomplish most wonderful displays.”

In presenting Asylumia as a region “to the hither side of Ethiopia,” A.S.M. transfers himself imaginatively from one realm of philanthropy to another, from the insane asylum in Utica to somewhere in the region of Liberia. Nonetheless, he appears to distance the Asylumians from the Ethiopians by referring to the patients as philanthropists as well as objects of charity—it is insane actors, after all, who are pictured as bringers of light. In this way, the performance marks the insane themselves as capable of lifting each other out of their debased state. And yet, this scenario is not so different from that of Liberia, where it was former slaves who did most of the missionary work, education, and institution building and who had, in 1847, achieved independence for their nation. As Amy Kaplan has written, “Colonization in the 1850s had a two-pronged ideology: to expel blacks to a separate national sphere, and to expand U.S. power through the civilizing process; black Christian settlers would become both outcasts from and agents for the American empire.”86 The comparison of blackness and insanity, then, could serve to degrade both groups and justify their expulsion, but it could also be part of an inspiring cycle of self-improvement and national pride.

Finally, in the strangest turn in A.S.M.'s piece, he expresses his hope that one day the Blackbird Minstrels of Asylumia will “delineate or caricature the habits and manners of lunas …; no doubt there will be a display of the power and influence of lunacy in promoting the happiness and well-being of the human race.” The array of in versions here is dizzying: an anonymous asylum inmate meditates on a troupe of insane whites imitating irrational blacks and imagines that those performers will then imitate insanity itself. Perhaps here is John Galt's “revulsive” technique on display: the insane (p.75) will see their own folly more clearly if it is exhibited to them. And yet there is more: A.S.M. casts this hypothetical self-mimicry as a task not just of turning madness and blackness inside out but of uplifting the entire human race. It is the insane, he argues, who can teach the sane that our civilization has a precarious hold on refinement and cultivation: “As civilization has a great proportion of Lunas, it were as well to travel back to the dark paths of rudeness and barbarity, and learn to unlearn the perversion of the refined and cultivated intellect.”

There is a mounting confusion in this piece. To read it is to become less and less clear about who is in need of philanthropy and who gives it, who is sane and who is not, and who is acting and whom represented. It is as if he sees madness and sanity, blackness and whiteness, self and other, as a series of masks, to which his writing only adds additional layers. The sense of a hidden self is a feature known intimately to those who have studied the colonial situation; Frantz Fanon's classic study Black Skin, White Masks makes clear the psychic consequences for the colonized who hide themselves behind a mask imposed upon them by their colonizers, and find their true selves lost, banished to a “zone of non-being.”87 But for A.S.M., masking seems to be a “perversion of the refined and cultivated intellect” rather than a desperate dodge of savages and lunatics. How is it that the “lunas” can uplift the entire race, rather than the other way around? It is by “unlearning the perversion of the refined and the cultivated,” and by revealing that we are separated from each other—the rude and the barbarous from the polite and civilized—only by a series of masks.

The Opal

contributors' wide-ranging commentaries on the minstrel shows, sometimes sardonic and sometimes playful, reveal a disparity, if not an open conflict, between the official rationale for asylum amusements (discipline, deferred gratification, self-control, and so forth) and the lived reality on the wards and in the theater (a fear of being stigmatized as psychically “black”). But it is important to remember that both the performances and the commentary emanate from a hopeful, even utopian, moment in the treatment of the insane: when it was believed that providing a sanative physical environment and a restorative cultural one would actually cure insanity and return the dispossessed to contact with society. Although at Utica the minstrel tradition continued until approximately 1890, by century's end it was staged in a very different context. Whereas during the middle of the century, the linkage of madness and blackness could generate an inspiring implication of racial/mental uplift, the last years of the minstrel shows (p.76) at Utica occurred during the rise of the psychiatric eugenics movement, which, according to Robert Castel, ushered in a new era of “racialism directed against the insane.”88 Eugenics was based on the post-Darwinian premise that much of insanity was inherited and ineradicable, and that the white race was in peril of degenerating into barbarity if insanity was not eradicated.89 Although Darwin, in his The Descent of Man, equated “primitive” racial cultures and people with cognitive disabilities, he was skeptical of the human ability to exert conscious control over the fate of the species; his cousin, the eugenicist Sir Francis Galton, believed that undesirable traits could be eliminated from humans through proper breeding, just as they were in dogs and horses.90 Eliminated, rather than reformed or cured: the superintendent at Utica during these years, G. Alder Blumer, was gradually coming to endorse such eugenicist techniques as ovariotomies and vasectomies to prevent the mentally defective from passing on their taint to future generations.91

The reasons for this are complex. First, as new treatment paradigms, especially neurology, challenged the assumptions of the moral treatment (especially its emphasis on environmental factors in both etiology and treatment), asylums were often left only with the hardest, most intractable cases to attend to. Asylum physicians' overestimation of their own cure rates during the period of the moral treatment contributed to the problem and helped convince state legislators of the need to exercise oversight of the superintendents' management of the institutions. Consequently, many asylum superintendents like Blumer felt their power over their institutions, as well as their power to cure patients, slipping away; supporting and refining the eugenics movement was a way for them to reassert control over mental illness, even if they could not cure it. Add to this the influx of immigrant patients who brought with them newly confounding cultural problems that were often read as signs of racial inferiority, and an environment was created in which those running the asylums were attracted to ideas that explained away their own powerlessness to effect cures. Eugenics did just that. In Blumer's words—heretical for a man who had started out his career as a gentlemanly practitioner of the moral treatment—“all diseases are hereditary.” To support the old moral treatment model was to court charges that one was using public funds to pamper and sustain the mentally defective. But sterilizing the insane, supporting legislation that forbade them to marry, or segregating them for life, could stand in for curing them.92

Under this new paradigm, the last minstrel performers at Utica could hardly have viewed their mimicry of blacks—no matter how ironically—as (p.77) an opportunity to show the world “the power and influence of lunacy in promoting the happiness and well-being of the human race.” In the eugenics paradigm, nonwhite races were once again compared with the insane and the “feeble-minded,” but without the aim of uplifting these wayward populations. As the historian Martin Pernick has written, eugenics, “carried to the logical extreme, could make possible genocide without homicide, the bloodless extermination of unwanted characteristics.”93 Blumer shied away from extreme eugenics positions such as castration or even euthanasia for mental defectives, and he even returned to some of the moral treatment tenets once he left the state asylum in 1894 and took up the direction of the private Butler Hospital for the Insane in Providence, Rhode Island. (There, he was free from meddling state legislatures and dealt primarily with patients from wealthy families, who had no desire to hear that their bloodlines were tainted and that their relatives were irrecoverable.94) But the mad blackface minstrels who trod the boards during his tenure at Utica witnessed, and no doubt felt, the loss of hope that a mix of culture, medicine, and environment could cure, and that the refinement of the insane was a mark of the advancement of civilization. (p.78)


(1) . For the history of blackface minstrelsy, see Robert Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974); Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); W.T. Lhamon, Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); and Dale Cockrell, Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Raising Cain and Demons of Disorder are two accounts that stress the changing circumstances and social meanings of blackface performance.

(2) . Cockrell, Demons of Disorder, 147–52.

(3) . Lhamon agrees with this trajectory in broad outlines, but insists that it retained a vernacular, antielitist, and often antiracist power in spite of official attempts to co-opt it. See Lhamon, Raising Cain, 65, 116–20.

(4) . See Susan Gubar, Race Changes: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); and Michael Paul Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

(5) . Erving Goffman, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (New York: Anchor Books, 1961), 13.

(6) . On self-possession as the key to understanding antebellum arguments about restricting racial minorities from property rights, see Priscilla Wald, “Terms of Assimilation: Legislating Subjectivity in the Emerging Nation,” in Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Donald Pease and Amy Kaplan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 59–84.

(7) . New York State, Annual Report of the Managers of the State Lunatic Asylum, vol. 5 (Albany, NY: C. Van Benthuysen, 1848), 51–52.

(8) . “The Blackbird Entertainment, by Ella,” Opal 4, no. 12 (December 1854): 373.

(9) . “Editor's Table: Asylumian Theatricals,” The Opal 6, no. 1 (1856): 21–22.

(10) .D. Tilden Brown, MD, “Theatrical Performances at the New York State Lunatic Asylum,” Medical Examiner 3 (April 1847): 261.

(11) . New York State, Annual Report, vol. 5 (1848), 41.

(12) . New York State, Annual Report, vol. 6 (Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons, & Co., 1849), 56. On the importance of “diversion” to European psychiatric thought, see Henri Falret, “On the Construction and Organization of Establishments for the Insane,” American Journal of Insanity 10, no. 4 (April 1854): 416.

(13) . John M. Galt, Essays on Asylums for Persons of Unsound Mind: Second Series (Richmond, (p.208) VA: Ritchies and Dunnavant, 1853), 16; Isaac Ray, Mental Hygiene (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863), 219, 237–38.

(14) . Michael B. Katz, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Poverty in America (New York: Basic Books, 1986), 12. Katz is following the work of Herbert Guttman and E. P. Thompson on time, work discipline, and industrial culture.

(15) . Brown, “Theatrical Performances,” 260 (“employment in industrial pursuits” and “the exercise of self-control”), 261 (“combining present gratification” and “that restraining surveillance”). After his tenure at Utica, Brown would go on to become superintendent of the Bloomingdale Lunatic Asylum in New York City.

(16) . Quoted in Lhamon, Raising Cain, 37.

(17) . Ray, Mental Hygiene, 237–38 (“a prolific source”), 219 (“the lower sentiments”).

(18) . Lott, Love and Theft, 27.

(19) . See Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Random House, 2002), 86–122. For examples of early psychiatric writing on masturbation, see Luther Bell, An Hour's Conference with Fathers and Sons, in Relation to a Common and Fatal Indulgence (Boston: Whipple and Damrell, 1840), and Samuel Woodward, Hints for the Young, in Relation to the Health of Body and Mind (Boston: George W. Light, 1840; repr. in The Beginnings of Mental Hygiene in America: Three Selected Essays, 1833–1850 [New York: Arno Press, 1973], 1–65).

(20) . New York State, Annual Report, vol. 8 (Albany, NY: n.p., 1851), 38–39.

(21) .Etta Floyd [pseud.], “The Music Mania,” Opal 5, no. 9 (September 1855): 273–74.

(22) . Brown, “Theatrical Performances,” 260.

(23) . Ray, Mental Hygiene, 219.

(24) . See Lhamon, Raising Cain, 45–54.

(25) . New York State, Annual Report, vol. 5 (1848), 42.

(26) . Ellen Dwyer cites this general rule for asylum performances at Utica in Homes for the Mad: Life Inside Two Nineteenth-Century Asylums (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 14.

(27) . New York State, Annual Report, vol. 5 (1848), 42.

(28) . “Negro Melodies,” Opal 4, no. 12 (December 1854), 372.

(29) . On the importance of such elements in the “moral architecture” of the asylum, see Nancy Tomes, A Generous Confidence: Thomas Story Kirkbride and the Art of Asylum-Keeping, 1840–1883 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), esp. 131–32.

(30) . Galt, Essays on Asylums, 6, 15–16.

(31) . Phebe B. Davis, The Travels and Experience of Miss Phebe B. Davis (Syracuse, NY: J.G.K. Truair & Co., 1860), 17.

(32) . On Reil, see Robert J. Richards, “Rhapsodies on a Cat-Piano, or Joahann Christian Reil and the Foundations of Romantic Psychiatry,” Critical Inquiry 24 (Spring 1998), 700–36 (quoted material is on pp. 720–21). For a mostly negative discussion of Reil's work in the United States, see Henri Falret, “On the Construction and Organization of Establishments for the Insane,” American Journal of Insanity 10. no. 4 (April 1854): 413–14.

(33) . See Jan Goldstein, Console and Classify: The French Psychiatric Profession in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 87.

(34) . See Klaus Doerner, Madmen and the Bourgeoisie: A Social History of Insanity and Psychiatry, trans. Joachim Neugroschel and Jean Steinberg (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), 136–37.

(35) . Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Random House, 1965), 189.

(36) . Ibid., 191–92.

(37) . Brown, “Theatrical Performances,” 260.

(38) . Brown, “Theatrical Performances,” 262.

(39) . “The Busybodies' Association,” Opal 5, no. 1 (1855): 12–14

(40) . “The Blackbird Entertainment, by Ella,” Opal 4, no. 12 (1854): 373–74; “Parlor Scene, by the Observer, C.,” Opal 4, no. 12 (1854): 367.

(41) . Dwyer calculates that the black population at Utica constituted 0.8% of the total. See Homes for the Mad, 106–8.

(42) . “Music for the Insane,” North Star (Rochester, NY), April 17, 1851.

(43) . See chapter 6.

(44) . Lhamon, Raising Cain, 63.

(45) . Cockrell, Demons of Disorder, 85–86.

(46) . Mrs. George Lunt, Behind the Bars (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1871), 42.

(47) . “NOTES OF MY STUDY, vol. 2, by A.W.L.S.,” Opal 1, no. 1 (January 1851): 4.

(48) . “Negro Melodies,” Opal 4, no. 12 (December 1854): 372.

(49) . “Parlor Scene, by the Observer, C.,” 367 (original emphasis).

(50) . Floyd, “The Music Mania,” 273–74.

(51) . Etta Floyd [pseud.], “The Musqueto Serenade,” Opal 4, no. 10 (October 1854): 294.

(52) . Lott, Love and Theft, 62.

(53) . This line of analysis was suggested to me in Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's wonderful analysis of a different act of masking in the early American republic. See Smith-Rosenberg, “Surrogate Americans: Masculinity, Masquerade, and the Formation of a National Identity,” PMLA 119, no. 5 (October 2004): 1325–35.

(54) . On whiteness, industrial discipline, and work—especially in relation to minstrelsy and popular culture—see David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991), especially 115–32.

(55) . “A Valentine to Missy Dinah Crow,” Opal 4, no. 2 (February 1854): 42.

(56) . Sander L. Gilman, Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 146.

(57) . Sander L. Gilman, Seeing the Insane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 2–6 (the quotation from Shakespeare is on p. 4).

(58) . Sir Richard Blackmore, A Treatise of the Spleen or Vapours, quoted in Andrew Scull, The Most Solitary of Afflictions: Madness and Society in Britain, 1700–1900 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), 50.

(59) . Georges Canguilhem, “The Normal and the Pathological,” in A Vital Rationalist: Selected Writings from Georges Canguilhem, ed. Francoix Delaporte; trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Zone Books, 1994), 366.

(60) . Robert Castel cites this analogy as a central rationale for the detention of the insane in postrevolutionary France: “Either the individual is an autonomous entity, since he is capable as such of carrying out rational exchanges, or his inability to enter a system of reciprocity renders him not responsible, and he must be assisted. The contractual basis of liberalism necessitates the comparison of the insane person with the child.” Castel, The Regulation of Madness: The Origins of Incarceration in France, trans. W.D. Halls (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 38.

(61) . George Fitzhugh, “Sociology for the South,” in Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South: A Brief History with Documents, ed. Paul Finkelman (New York: Bedford Books, 2003), 190. The circle of analogies between blacks, the insane, and children is complete when we consider, as Caroline Levander does, that the figure of the child was often implicitly racialized in the nineteenth century. As Levander shows, discussion of childhood raised “urgent national question[s] of where freedom ends and slavery begins” that was both analogous to and foundational for discussion of slavery and citizenship. See Levander, Cradling Liberty: The Child, the Self, and the Racial State in American Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming), ms. p. 16.

(62) . See Gilman, Difference and Pathology, 136–38.

(63) . For an analysis of the disputes over the census findings, see Patricia Cline Cohen, A Calculating People: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983; New York: Routledge, 1999), 175–204 (citations are to the Roudedge edition).

(64) . Calhoun, in a letter defending slavery to the British ambassador, wrote that “the census and other authentic documents show that, in all instances in which the States have changed the former relations between the two races, the condition of the African, instead of being improved, has become worse. They have been invariably sunk into vice and pauperism, accompanied by the bodily and mental inflictions incident thereto—deafness, blindness, insanity, and idiocy—to a degree without example; while, in all other States which have retained the ancient relation between them, they have improved greatly in every respect—in number, comfort, intelligence, and morals.” Quoted in Gilman, Difference and Pathology, 137.

(65) . “Who would believe,” asked a writer in the American Journal of Insanity in 1851, “without the fact, in black and white, before his eyes, that every fourteenth colored person in the State of Maine is an idiot or lunatic?” Quoted in William Ragan Stanton, The Leopard's Spots: Scientific Attitudes Toward Race in America, 1815–1859 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 65; see also 214n24 (original emphasis).

(66) . Lynn Gamwell and Nancy Tomes, Madness in America: Cultural and Medical Perceptions of Mental Illness before 1914 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 58–59; David J. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971), 112.

(67) . W.M. Bevins, “The Psychological Traits of the Southern Negro with Observations as to Some of His Psychoses,” American Journal of Psychiatry 1, no. 1 (July 1921): 69–78 (the quoted material is on pp. 68 and 72).

(68) . Norman Dain, Concepts of Insanity in the United States, 1789–1865 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1964), 69; Lawrence B. Goodheart, Mad Yankees: The Hartford Retreat for the Insane and Nineteenth-Century Psychiatry (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), 99.

(69) . Gilman, Seeing the Insane, xiii.

(70) . “Editor's Table,” Opal 2, no. 11 (November 1852): 349.

(71) . “Hast Thou No Friend?” Opal 4, no. 4 (April 1854): 103.

(72) . Karen Sanchez-Eppler similarly studies the linkages between the work of colony and empire on the one hand and moral reform at home on the other. Taken together, these movements “locate[d] the otherness in need of civilizing both within and without” the national boundaries. See Sanchez-Eppler, “Raising Empires Like Children: Race, Nation, and Religious Education,” American Literary History 8, no. 3 (Autumn 1996): 399–425 (the quote is on p. 403). Sanchez-Eppler has expanded this study in Dependent States: The Child's Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

(73) . On the Quaker roots of moral treatment, see Anne Digby, Madness, Morality, and Medicine: A Study of the York Retreat, 1796–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). On Thornton, see Lamin Sanneh, Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 185–87.

(74) . On connections between humanitarianism and productivity, see Thomas Haskell, “Capitalism and the Origins of Humanitarian Sensibility,” American Historical Review 90, no. 2 (April 1985): 339–61; and no. 3 (June 1985): 547–66.

(75) . See Sanneh, Abolitionists Abroad.

(76) . “Africa,” Opal 1, no. 7 (July 1851): 50.

(77) . Finley and the declaration are cited in Sanneh, Abolitionists Abroad, 235, 236.

(78) . Cited in Douglas C. Baynton, “‘A Silent Exile on this Earth’: The Metaphorical Construction of Deafness in the Nineteenth Century,” American Quarterly 44, no. 2 (June 1992): 221, 223.

(79) . “Exchanges,” Opal 1, no. 2 (February 1851): 21.

(80) . “Editor's Table,” Opal 2, no. 6 (June 1852): 187–88.

(81) . Lennard J. Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (London: Verso, 1995), 91–92.

(82) . Baynton, “‘A Silent Exile on this Earth,’” 217. Baynton argues that the separatism of Deaf culture became threatening to the American mainstream after about 1860 when, in the wake of mass immigration, the presence of “foreigners” who refused to assimilate was perceived as a grave danger to the social body.

(83) . See Jill Lepore, A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States (New York: Knopf, 2002), 91–110 (the quote is on p. 108).

(84) . See Megan Vaughan, Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991); and Richard Keller, “Madness and Colonization: Psychiatry in the British and French Empires,” Journal of Social History 35, no. 2 (2001): 295–326. The latter is a trenchant review article of this emerging field.

(85) . Ann Laura Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 7.

(86) . Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 36.

(87) . Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lamm Markman (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1967), 8.

(88) . Castel, The Regulation of Madness, 37.

(89) . On the history of the eugenics movement, see Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (New York: Knopf, 1985); and Diane B. Paul, Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present (New York: Humanities Press, 1995).

(90) . See Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, Cultural Locations of Disability (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 12–13, 24–25.

(91) . On Blumer and American psychiatrists' involvement in the eugenics movement, see Ian Robert Dowbiggin, Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States and Canada, 1880–1940, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997). Blumer's support for ovariotomies and vasectomies is discussed on pp. 84 and 91.

(92) . See Dowbiggin, Keeping America Sane, 70–132. (The quote from Blumer is on p. 83.)

(93) . Martin Pernick, The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 175.

(94) . Dowbiggin, Keeping America Sane, 86–87.