Spiritual Madness: Race, Psychiatry, and Black Religion
Judith Weisenfeld, Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion and Chair of the Department of Religion at Princeton University
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, white American psychiatrists declared that mental illness among African Americans in the South had reached alarming proportions and argued that, in a notable percentage of these cases, “religious excitement” was the key precipitating factor. This talk explores late nineteenth and early twentieth-century psychiatric theories about race, religion, and the “normal mind” and shows how the emerging specialty of psychiatry drew on works from history of religions to make racialized claims about African Americans’ “traits of character, habit, and behavior.” This history of the intersections of psychiatry and African American religions sheds light on how ideas about race, religion, and mental normalcy shaped African American experience in courts and mental hospitals and on the role the racialization of religion played more broadly in the history of medicine, legal history, and the history of disability.
Judith Weisenfeld is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion and Chair of the Department of Religion at Princeton University, where she is also Associate Faculty in the Department of African American Studies and the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. A scholar of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century African American religious history, she is the author most recently of New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (NYU, 2016), which won the 2017 Albert J. Raboteau Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions, and of Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 (California, 2007), and African American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945 (Harvard 1997). Her work has been supported by grants from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the John S. Guggenheim Foundation. She is currently the Director of The Crossroads Project: Black Religious Histories, Cultures, and Communities, funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.
Presented by the The Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion with generous support from the Henry Luce Foundation.