Diana Louis

Assistant Professor, Women's Studies and American Culture, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

2019 to 2020
Research Fellow

Colored Insane: Slavery, Asylums, and Mental Illness in the 19th Century

Colored Insane examines the impact of transformations in American psychiatry and African Americans’ social position during the end of one prototypical institution of confinement and the expansion of another: slavery and asylums, respectively. In the midst of changing circumstances, two identities existed — the “slave” and the “insane.” Examining the overlap between these two subject positions, the book explores African Americans’ embodied experiences of mental disability within the asylum, the institution most notorious for treating them. Ultimately, Colored Insane tells the story of competing discourses: how racialized medico-psychiatric discourses came to bear on black lives during and after slavery, and how blacks articulated alternative discourses about their mental health. It argues that nineteenth-century psychiatric discourses made African Americans “mad” both by constructing disorders according to prevailing notions of race and insanity, and by inflicting real psychological harm within asylums, jails, plantations, and society writ large.