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Mab Segrest on Lynching and Lunacy

Mab Segrest: Lynching and Lunacy – The Racist Roots of American Psychiatry

Lynching and Lunacy: Mab Segrest on the Racist Roots of American Psychiatry

 

About This Episode

 

 

Acclaimed “Race Traitor” author, Mab Segrest, takes Laura through deep south to trace the racist roots of American psychiatry. They explore the infamous state mental hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia and visit with Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama to consider how our society’s mental and political health relate to history. Segrest’s newest book is Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum, due out April 2020.

 

 


 

 

I had become a woman haunted by the dead, the time was the mid 1980s, organizing against a far-right movement…”

 

 


 

 

 

In This Episode

 

Mab Segrest, Author and gender studies scholar

 

Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative

 

 

Transcript

 

 

Laura Flanders:

 

Author and activist Mab Segrest has spent the last 30 years fighting racism, and sexism, and homophobia. And writing books that connects those things and put them in the context of America’s jagged history. Her book Memoir of a Race Traitor: Fighting Racism in the American South, became a classic text of white anti-racism. Her latest book, Administrations of Lunacy, looks at the racist roots of psychiatry. What is a race traitor? From Tuskegee to Milledgeville, Georgia to Montgomery Mab Segrest is our guest, and our guide this week on the Laura Flanders Show. A place where the people who say it can’t be done take a backseat to the people who are doing it. Welcome.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

This is the 25th anniversary of Memoir of a Race Traitor, which has a new cover of me when I was 29, and having a very good time with my life. So …

 

Laura Flanders:

 

My copy of Memoir of a Race Traitor is 25 years old, and I cherish it. But this book is as relevant as ever, as shown by the crowds that showed up for her reading at Bluestockings here in New York on the Lower East Side.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

This year, I turned 70 years old. A quarter of a century ago, this book was an alarm bell in the night. Now, it’s clanging louder yet. This is still a story about the ravages of racism, the meanings of race in the United States, and what we must do about them. Race Traitor is also one glimpse into a trajectory of the great battle that still rages in the United States about who controls resources, and who is human. The memoir part of this book is a story about how that impact of white supremacy happened across generations in my white, conservative Southern family.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

Well, I’m delighted to be in Bluestocking bookstore on Allen Street in lower Manhattan today with all these wonderful books, they’re a revolution, each one of them in themselves. So I’m very happy to be back in New York and in Bluestockings, and to have Memoir of a Race Traitor out since September in a quarter of a century anniversary edition.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

What does it mean to you that the book is still so relevant?

 

Mab Segrest:

 

Well, for one thing, I’m happy that it has transcended the particular time and place I wrote it in. And, for the second thing, it’s unfortunate that it’s quite as relevant as it is and that it traces the rise of fascist neo-fascist, Klan, Nazi movements in the country that with the election of Trump in 2016 are kind of at a crisis proportion.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

What does race traitor mean exactly?

 

Mab Segrest:

 

Well, several people have asked me that. When I decided to put it on the cover of the book it was because race traitor was the thing from my childhood that most described the activity that I was doing, the book described. Breaking with white supremacy, aligning myself with people of color, particularly in the South black people, and taking on white authorities. And that was a race traitor. And if you were a race traitor, you’d get shot. And it’s not an identity, it’s not a tee shirt, it’s not a commodity. It’s a practice that breaks ranks and puts you in a shared risk that shares danger and possibilities too.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

What do you think it is about how you grew up that led you to break with your family? And maybe just remind us a little bit of who your family were.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

Right. Well, I was born in Alabama in 1949 in what is politely described as a conservative family.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

To follow her back to where her story began, Mab Segrest took me to Tuskegee, Alabama, where she grew up in the 1950s.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

I had a great grandfather who helped to write the Alabama constitution that brought in Jim Crow. There was a grandfather, my father’s father, who was in the Klan, and then my dad was in the white citizens’ council and was a segregationist. And also, my father organized a white private school movement all over Alabama.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

I’m here today, back home in Tuskegee, standing on my great grandfather, James Cobbs’ grave because he is one of the culprits. And race traitor was both an attempt to change the karma of my family, and in so doing hope for a better calmer for the planet, and also to learn the history of my family, what there was to save, and what there was to defeat. This is James Cobb. Sacred to the memory, James Edward Cobb. Born 1835 died in 1903. And did a lot of stuff in the meantime.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

He was an officer in the Confederate Army, came home, became a judge. He was a democratic judge, which was the slave party judge, the Confederate judge, and he threw all of the Republicans who were the Abraham Lincoln party at that point, kind of hard to remember, but they were, into jail. Onto what was not the chain gang then, but would have been convict lease. He was a judge for a couple of decades. 1890, he ran for Congress and was elected, and my family was always very proud that we had this Congress person in the family, Judge Cobb.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

But it turned out, when he ran again in 1894, Congress proved that he stole the election from the populist insurgency and they kicked him out. In 1903 his last dastardly deed, he helped to rewrite the Alabama constitution, or maybe it was 1901, that set in Jim Crow and reigns today in Alabama, has not been changed, which is part of the gridlock that white supremacy has had on Alabama. Despite the swath of black belt counties that have been turned to more Democratic by black votes and black local governments.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

What I just found was a Confederate flag, which hadn’t been here the last time, which admittedly it’s been awhile, but they’re all across the cemetery. Clearly mass produced, says keep it flying. Not about memory, not about memorial, about the continuing life of the Confederacy, which is the afterlife of slavery that regenerates itself in Jim Crow, and in mass incarceration generation after generation struggled against, often triumphantly, still to be defeated.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

Sticking with that period of sort of childhood in Alabama under segregation, what was it you think that set you on a different path from your family?

 

Mab Segrest:

 

Well, I think it was knowing and not knowing that I was queer, that I was a lesbian, that I wasn’t fitting into this culture, that something was really amiss with that. And that either I would be outside of this reality forever, or there’d be some other path.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

There was also a moment for you in a church?

 

Mab Segrest:

 

Yeah. There were a couple places when I look back that were the kind of cracks in the cosmic egg for me.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

For me, the journey from the cemetery to this church is a journey from death to love, but the relationship between death and love is complicated. I’m sitting on the steps of The First Methodist Church in Tuskegee, or what’s left of it. It was where I was raised, where my mother and father went, and where my grandmother went, and my great grandfather went.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

I would sing in the choir and on the side of the church were beautiful stained glass windows that in the morning the light came through. And I can see various lessons of the scripture that my Sunday school teachers, my white Sunday school teachers, my mother’s friends were teaching me Jesus in Gethsemane, the Good Shepherd, Jesus knocking at the door. And my father was a deacon, and he and other of his male friends were appointed this new position, which was called, the welcomer. And what it meant was you kept an eye out, and if you saw any black people coming, you run in, and you lock the door.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

So, when I saw that commotion from choir loft in the back of the church it didn’t take much of a move of my head to look over to this window that had a beautiful Jesus with the light coming through, knocking at the door. I was a good student in Sunday school, and I knew that that meant knock and it will be open, seek and you will find. And it was one of those images that I worked with really my whole life, but it took me a while to figure out the people who wanted freedom, who wanted to hold us accountable to scriptures that we taught, who wanted to knock and have it be entered they were here. And so, this is where I should be. And that kind of locking ourselves in locks other people out. And when you don’t do that act of love, then what you get is death and you get a church that dies. And if we’re not careful, we get a world that dies.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

And how did Tuskegee seem to you nowadays?

 

Mab Segrest:

 

Well, it’s a very different town. Both black and white people live there, but more people don’t live there. Lots of old houses boarded up or falling down, basically, because after integration a lot of white people just left. My childhood terrain’s really gone.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

“I’d become a woman haunted by the dead. The time was the mid to late 1980s, organizing against a rampaging far right movement in North Carolina I’d tracked back roads that roiled beneath me, like a river flow on a journey into the ravages of racism, and the meanings of race as those forces framed Southern and national culture. The people and ideas that had shaped me from birth. My immediate adversaries where the Ku Klux Klansmen seeking to restore the apartheid world of my Alabama childhood and Neo Nazis looking toward a cataclysmic future, a globe in which only Arians would survive their wars to purify the white race. These extremists could operate because they served the purposes of numb and greedy men and their systems built on dark skinned, people’s bones and blood.”

 

Laura Flanders:

 

How does Race Traitor connect to Administrations of Lunacy, your next book?

 

Mab Segrest:

 

In the introduction of Race Traitor, there’s a sentence like what therapists would tell us to read history? And it talks about the struggle to unite the intimate and the historical, the familial and the larger scope of history. And so, in Administrations of Lunacy, it’s about the history of therapy, the history of insanity, the history of treatment of that with a generative question at the beginning, once I stumbled onto Georgia State Mental Hospital in a little town of Milledgeville that had been the state capital from 1805 to 1867. Once I stumbled onto that and really got fascinated with the archives, the question came to me like, how does a culture and a government at the county unit, particularly, decide who is and is not seen in one space that became the largest in the world by the 1950s, so how does that happen?

 

Laura Flanders:

 

How does the state compel obedience and even get inside our heads? Institutions like this play a big role in it. After Tuskegee, Mab Segrest came to Milledgeville.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

Milledgeville State Hospital was the largest state hospital in the world, and it had the largest graveyard of disabled people, 25,000 people buried on these grounds from 1842 to now. It was the most gruesome site in Georgia. One of its employees said, “Abandoned by God, they could have been us.”

 

Mab Segrest:

 

I first started paying attention to state mental hospitals growing up as a girl in Alabama during segregation. Girls and boys would often threaten each other, “You better be careful, they’ll send to Bryce’s.” And Bryce’s was the state hospital in Alabama. And people, at least of my generation, all across the country were threatened, “You better be careful, we’ll send you to …,” and you fill in the blank. You didn’t know what Milledgeville, or Bryce’s, or Jackson was, but you knew you didn’t want to go there.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

I’ve come to understand that the real story here is the story of racism and psychiatry. It’s a story that’s national and even global, but you can really see it from these grounds. If this state was one of the most intense slave cultures since the Roman empire, it’s a good place to look at race, and the effects of slavery and, what black scholars have called, the afterlives of slavery on psychiatry and through that on us. On our minds, on how our sensibilities, our consciousness is constituted.

 

Mab Segrest:

So the first psychiatrists were asylum doctors and there were private asylums and rich people could also always go to them. But it’s the state asylums that have dysfunction because they are not only functioning as curative, but also they serve the interest of the State of Georgia, the State of Alabama, that the emerging United States.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

There were lunacy commissions in every county. Everybody came here from the county, which is why the question of lynching and commitment interests me because people were lynched in counties, and it would’ve been the sheriff who had arrested people in counties who would open the doors and let Lynch moms in to go lynch people in counties. So, your lunacy commission was where anyone could apply to bring you in, could be your family member, could be the sheriff, could be a neighbor, but many people also came in with no history provided, which is kind of astounding. Like you could come to an institution and be here for the next two years when maybe you died of something you caught here. Or you could be here for 20 years, or 30 years. These institutions don’t provide the history, they don’t provide the traumas of settler colonialism, or slavery, or native removal of what it means to be poor in a culture like this. And so they can then blame people.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

As I told a friend of mine is, is if you go into a territory where you’ve displaced the people, you take lead out of the ground, you shape it into a bullet, you put in your gun and you shoot them with it. Like you take their history and you eliminate it, and then you reshape their symptoms, and blame them on it, and then you punish them, and then you sterilize them, and then the Nazis exterminate them. And that eugenics movement really takes root in the United States in a way it didn’t in Europe, and Hitler learns from us.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

Tens of thousands of patients died at Milledgeville. Little metal stubs mark their graves. Not so long ago, some of the white patients’ graves had their markers organized into tidy rows, but wandering the grounds Mab found the markers of hundreds of black patients’ graves scattered, still unnamed beneath trees.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

We are in the Memorial Cemetery looking out behind me at 2000 of the metal stubs that are the markers of patient graves over the decades and even centuries. And then also behind the fence, which on the other side was the Ingram building, which was a hospital that was then repurposed as a prison. And this shift from the patient to the prisoner on state land is the story of the last part of the 20th century.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

In 1960, they’re half a million patients in state mental hospitals. And as those patients came out of those hospitals were, so called, de-institutionalized for community care, so it’s supposedly miraculous anti-psychotic drugs. There was also the beginning of a system of mass incarceration. The miracles of the drugs sometimes did not pan out, although the profits to big pharma did astronomically. And the community care promise was never funded because Nixon, and then Reagan gutted social spending. Today, 9 out of 10 psychiatric beds are in jails and prisons.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

How did this happen? Well, there’s a reason that it happened. It is comprehensible. I want us to understand more deeply from Administrations of Lunacy how racism and white supremacy has always haunted state psychiatry and, through that, our understandings of our mind of what’s normal or not, of how we should be treated and how we should move forward in our families, in our communities, in our culture.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

If you were to describe the kind of journey you’re on, would it be about making visible the unseen?

 

Mab Segrest:

 

It’s not so much visibility. It’s like understanding the terrain. When I was little and seeing the Civil Rights movement unfold and watching the contradictions in my church, it’s like, why is this happening? So I really have turned to history to say like, “Where does this come from?”

 

Laura Flanders:

 

Another place where people are turning to history is Montgomery, Alabama, where the Equal Justice Initiative is talking about restorative justice. That involves not just recognizing the harm done by white supremacy, but repairing it. And that repair requires rewriting history.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

We can’t have restorative justice until we have restorative history, until we know the history of who did what to whom, and what is the context of harm in which we’re all operating. How do we repair any of the damage? OR move forward to a better world? Bryan Stevenson, the director of the Equal Justice Initiative, opened this place one year ago. It’s the National Memorial for Peace and Justice based here in Montgomery. And it’s, so far, the world’s first and only monument to the legacy of enslaved Africans, the humiliation of African-Americans under Jim Crow, and the contemporary of reality African-Americans living with the suspicion of violence and police cruelty.

 

Bryan Stevenson:

 

And we’re here today because we are committed to persevering. This building is a symbol of perseverance. That monument is a symbol of struggle. That Memorial is about this calling to do justice because I believe that justice is a constant struggle. We can’t create justice in America if we’re not willing to struggle.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

The Equal Justice Initiative documented 4,400 lynchings of black people in the US between 1877 and 1954 for it’s memorial. In April 2019, they dedicated an additional monument to 24 men, women, and children who were victims of racial terror, lynchings and violence in the 1950s and since.

 

Bryan Stevenson:

 

We want these flowers to be a witness, a symbol, of our hope, our love, and our perseverance.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

To learn more about the restorative work of the Equal Justice Initiative, Mab and I sat down with the founder and executive director, Bryan Stevenson.

 

Bryan Stevenson:

 

Well, I think we’re not free in America. I think we’re burdened by a history of racial inequality that’s created a kind of smog in the air. It’s the reason why we can’t trust one another, we can’t build healthy communities, we can’t overcome incidents of misunderstanding. We’re not free. If we want to be free, we’re going to have to commit ourselves to telling the truth about our history. We’ve engaged in centuries of distortion and denial. And I think it’s just left us vulnerable. So, for me, the sites are kind of an effort to begin truth-telling in America.

 

Bryan Stevenson:

 

When I moved to Montgomery, in the 1980s, there were 59 markers and memorials to the Confederacy. You couldn’t find the word slave, slavery or enslavement anywhere in this city. It’s a majority black city where the history of African-Americans was simply not addressed. What I hope we have modeled is that you have to be brave, you have to put these words out there. We’ve now got these images that you have to walk past that reflect the tragedy of enslavement, and the brutality of lynching, and the humiliation of segregation that you have to walk past. We’re determined to change the iconography of this country, which is complicit in sustaining so much of this bigotry and bias. And I’m excited that people are responding. I think there is a real hunger to get to truth.

 

John Paul Boswell:

 

In 1808 the United States Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa. At the same time, the high price of cotton and the development of the cotton gin caused a demand for slave labor to skyrocket in the lower South. The domestic slave trade was granted to meet this demand. Over the next 50 years, slave traders forcibly transferred hundreds of thousands of slaves from the upper South to Alabama, and the lower South.

 

Gracy Hughes:

 

Hundreds of slaves began arriving by rail and by boat each day in Montgomery, turning the city into a principal slave trading center in Alabama. Enslaved people who arrived at the riverfront, or at the train station were paraded up Commerce Street to be sold in the city slave markets.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

What strikes anyone who looks at those, it certainly struck me as someone who spent a good many years in Montgomery going to undergraduate school here, is how transformative the information is. This part of Montgomery history was not really told until Bryan Stevenson, and the Equal Justice Initiative got here. And, now, it’s being told in so many different ways that resound not only across Montgomery and across Alabama, but really across the South, and across anywhere there were lynchings.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

It’s not just people who are changed by practices of restorative history. Places and economies are too.

 

Bryan Stevenson:

 

In the first year we’ve had 400,000 visitors come. That has had a significant impact on the economy. The sales tax revenue is up dramatically. Hotel occupancy is up dramatically. It spurred development, there are two hotels being built across the street from our museum. And all of that is a collateral consequence of this effort. The effort would be important even if those things didn’t happen, but we like creating opportunities for people who live in the city to have meaningful employment.

 

Bryan Stevenson:

 

I’m excited by the beginnings where it’s still early in this story, but I’m really energized by what I’ve seen over the last year to have thousands of people come from all over the world. But also thousands of people come from around the community, and experience these sites and speak their truth, and commit to wanting to do more. That’s the really exciting thing.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

And why do this? Why is this work important? Why is this history important?

 

Mab Segrest:

 

Well, it’s been so denied and repressed. I mean, that’s the thing that’s invisible. There’s all these things that have happened in the places that we live that white people, anyway, don’t know about. So, we’re just kind of blindly stumbling through them. And that’s not a good metaphor, but we’re stumbling through them unconsciously.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

Are you at peace with your Confederate great-grandfathers yet?

 

Mab Segrest:

 

I have three Confederate great-grandfathers, and I wish that they were peacefully in the grave. I wish that they had been left alone. I wish that they were not so current today floating around as another set of ghosts in the atmosphere. And one of the things, I recently returned to Durham in the South after a sojourn in New York and in Connecticut teaching, and it’s remarkable how current the Civil War is, how current the Confederacy is.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

But as I have examined this too, coming back into North Carolina, this whole Neo Confederate movement it’s not about the past, it’s about the future. And these people want to succeed. And then I thought, “Well, kind of the spirit of the age like Brexit. Let’s break up the unions, let’s break everything up. It’s a kind of anarchist, right wing fascist tendency there.” And then, when you look at our illustrious president, Mr. Trump, who is now threatening civil war, there’s a bunch of people out there had been wanting civil war since 1867 or 1868 because they hadn’t finished the first one. So, this whole question of the Confederacy is a very current question. And I do feel like as the great granddaughter of three Confederates, and having been enrolled in the United Daughters of the Confederacy when I was a baby by my mother I have some standing in this discussion and I really want to continue it.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

Do you think this struggle will look like this in 25 years?

 

Mab Segrest:

 

No, I think the contradictions are so acute now that it’s got a resolve one way or another. It really does. And I think the arc of the future is with progressives, it’s with democracy, it’s with the majority of folks. And part of the constriction, and crisis now is because those white people who fear the demographic time bomb, and white extinction by people of color taken over the universe and everything are really digging in. So what happens with that? We got to see.

 

Laura Flanders:

 

Constriction or change? It’s not easy grappling with the violence of our racist and sexist past. But I agree with Mab Segrest, that it’s indispensable for our political, and even our mental health. The future of our society as a diverse democratic state depends on it.

 

Mab Segrest:

 

One of the patients whose narratives I really embraced the most, she was committed in 1911, 1910/1911 for praying, singing, shouting and crying. And the doctors were very puzzled because they were trying to apply the new systems. Is she manic depressive? Is she gets schizophrenic? How do we know? But the doctor then asked her set of questions and for schizophrenia it’s like, “What’s your sense of reality?” So he says like, “Do you hear voices?” And she said, “Yeah, I hear my dead brothers’ and sisters’ voices.” He said, “You don’t really hear them, do you?” She said, “Yeah, I hear them. I see I’m too, I mean you can see them all the time.” And he says, “Well they’re not real, are they?” And first she says, “Yeah,” and then she says, “Yeah, I mean, they are not living, but they’re real.”

 

Laura Flanders:

 

You can find more of my interviews with Mab Segrest, and Bryan Stevenson at our website. Thanks for joining me.

 

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