Acclaimed white anti-racist scholar Mab Segrest, author of the influential book Memoir of a Race Traitor, takes Laura through the US South to trace the racist roots of American psychiatry. Together, they explore the infamous state mental hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia, once the largest “insane” asylum in the world, 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 our nation’s history. Segrest’s newest book is Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum. This episode was filmed before the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Mab Segrest, Author and Gender Studies Scholar
- Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative
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“The shift from the patient to the prisoner held on state land is the story of the last part of 20th century.”
— Mab Segrest
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– This is still a story about the ravages of racism, the meanings of race in the United States, and what me must do about them. I have three confederate great-grandfathers, and I wish that they were peacefully in the grave. I wish that they were not so current today, floating around as another set of ghosts in the atmosphere.
– Oh, 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.
– How did this happen? There’s a reason that it happened. It is comprehensible.
– It’s all coming up on The Laura Flanders Show, the place where the people who say it can’t be done take a back seat to the people who are doing it. 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.
– 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–
– 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.
– 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. 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.
– What does race traitor mean exactly?
– 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 get shot. And it’s not an identity, it’s not a t-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.
– 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.
– Right. Well, I was born in Alabama in 1949 into what is politely described as a conservative family.
– To follow her back to where her story began, Mab Segrest took me to Tuskegee, Alabama, where she grew up in the 1950’s.
– 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 Citizen’s Council and was a segregationist, and also my father organized a white private school movement all over Alabama. I’m here today, back home in Tuskegee, standing on my great-grandfather James Cobb’s grave because he’s 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 karma 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. 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 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’ve been convict lease. He was a judge for a couple decades. 1890, he ran for congress and was elected, and my family was always very proud that we had this congressperson in the family, Judge Cobb. But it turned out, when he ran again in 1894, it would, 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 built counties that had been turned more Democratic by Black votes and Black local governments. What I just found was a Confederate flag, which hadn’t been here the last time, which admittedly, it’s been a while. 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.
– Sticking with that period of, sort of, childhood in Alabama, onto segregation, what was it, you think, that set you on a different path from your family?
– Well, I think it was knowing, 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.
– There was also a moment for you in a church.
– Yeah, yeah, there were a couple places, when I look back, that were the kind of cracks in the cosmic egg for me. 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. 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 shepard. 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. So when I saw that commotion from the 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 a 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 opened, 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.
– And how did Tuskegee seem to you nowadays?
– Well it’s very, 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 fallen down, basically because after integration, a lot of white people just left. The childhood terrain is really gone. I had become a woman haunted by the dead. The time was the mid to late 1980’s. Organizing against a rampaging far right movement in North Carolina, I tracked back roads that rolled beneath me like the 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 were 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 Aryans 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.
– How does “Race Traitor” connect to “Administrations of Lunacy,” your next book?
– In the introduction of “Race Traitor,” there’s a sentence like, what therapist 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, it had been the state capital from 1805 to 1867. Once I stumbled onto that and really got fascinated with 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 sane “in one space that became the largest in the world “by the 1950’s?” So how does that happen?
– 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.
– 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 sight in Georgia,” one of its employees said. “Abandoned by God, they could have been us.” 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, or they’ll send you 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 or we’ll send you too and you fill in the blank. You didn’t know what Millidgeville or Bryce’s or Jackson was, but you knew you didn’t wanna go there. I’ve come to understand that the real story here is the story of racism in 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 threw that on us, on our minds, on our sensibilities, our consciousness is constituted. So the first psychiatrists were asylum doctors. And there were private asylums, and rich people could always go to them, but it’s the state asylums that had dysfunction because they are not only functioning as curative, but also they serve the interest of the State of Georgia, the State of Alabama, the emerging United States. 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 have been the sheriff who would have arrested people in counties who were opening the doors and letting lynch mobs 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 or what it means to be poor in a culture like this. And so they can then blame people. As, as I told a friend of mine, it’s as if you go in to a territory where you’ve displaced the people, you take lead out of the ground, you shape it into a bullet, you put it in your gun, and you shoot them with it. You know 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, 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 learned from us.
– Tens of thousand of patients died at Millidgeville. 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.
– We are in the Memorial Cemetery, looking out behind me at 2,000 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. In 1960, there are half a million patients in state mental hospitals. And as those patients came out of those hospitals, were so called deinstitutionalized for community care, to 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. How did this happen? Well, there is 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.
– If you were to describe the kind of journey you’re on, would it be about making visible the unseen?
– It’s not so much visibility, it’s like understanding the terrain. You know, when I was little and seeing the civil rights movement unfold and watching the contradiction in my church, it was like, “Why is this happening?” So, I really have turned to history to say like, “Where does this come from?”
– 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. 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 reality of African Americans living with the suspicion of violence and police cruelty.
– And we are 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 constant struggle. We can’t create justice in America if we are not willing to struggle.
– The Equal Justice Initiative documented 4,400 lynchings of Black people in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950 for its 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 1950’s and since.
– We want these flowers to be a witness, a symbol of our hope, our love and our perseverance.
– 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.
– Well I think, we are 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 gonna 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. When I moved to Montgomery in the 1980’s, 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, 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 the truth.
– 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, calls a demand for slave labor to skyrocket in the lower South. The domestic slave trade was created 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.
– 106 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 river front or at the train station were paraded up Commerce Street to be sold in city slave markets.
– 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.
– It’s not just people who were changed by practices of restorative history. Places and economies are too.
– 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. 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, that’s the really exciting thing.
– And why do this? Why is this work important? Why is this history important?
– Well it’s been so denied and repressed. I mean that’s the thing that’s invisible. Just all these things that have happened in the places that we live that, 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 are stumbling through them unconsciously.
– Are you at peace with your confederate great grandfathers yet?
– 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 sojourning in New York and Connecticut teaching, and it’s remarkable how current The Civil War is. How current the Confederacy is. But as I have examined this too, coming back into North Carolina, this whole neo-Confederate movement is really, is not about the past, it’s about the future. And these people want to secede. And then I thought well, it’s kind of the spirit of the age that breaks it. You know, let’s break up the union, let’s break everything up. It’s a kind of anarchist, right wing fascist tendency there. And then when you look at out our illustrious President, Mr. Trump, who is now threatening civil war, there’s a bunch of people out there been wanting civil war since 1867 or 1878, 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, as with by my mother, I have some standing in this discussion, and I really want to continue it.
– Do you think the struggle will look like this in 25 years?
– No. I think the contradictions are so acute now that it’s gotta resolve one way or another. It really does. And, and I think the arc of the future is with progresses, 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 taking over the universe and everything are really digging in, you know. So what happens with that? You gotta see.
– 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.
– One of the patients whose narratives I really embrace the most, she was committed in 1911, 1910, 1911, for praying, singing, shouting and crying. And the doctors were very puzzled ’cause they were trying to apply the new systems. Is she manic depressive, is she schizophrenic? How do we know? But the doctor then asked her a set of questions. And for schizophrenia, it’s like “What’s your sense of reality?” So he says like, “Do you, do you speak, do you hear voices?” And she’s “Yeah, I hear my dead brothers “and sisters voices.” And he says, “You don’t really hear them, do you?” And she, “Yeah I hear them. “I see them 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 says, “Yeah, I mean, they’re not living. “But they’re real.”
– You can find more of my interviews with Mab Segrest and Bryan Stevenson at our website. Thanks for joining me.
– For more on this episode and other forward thinking content, and to tune in to our podcast, visit our website at LauraFlanders.org and follow us on social media @TheLFshow.
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