“A Deeper Science”
At some time or other the conscience of society will awake and remind it that the poor man should have just as much right to assistance for his mind as he now has to the life-saving help offered by surgery; and that the neuroses threaten public health no less than tuberculosis, and can be left as little to the latter to the impotent care of individual members of the community…. It may be a long time before the State comes to see these duties as urgent. Present conditions may delay its arrival even longer. Probably these institutions will first be started by private charity. Some time or other, however, it must come to this.
Sigmund Freud, “Lines of Advance in Psycho-Analytic Therapy,” 1918
On October 11, 1941, the New York Amsterdam News ran a headline: “Dick Wright’s Bigger Thomas Comes to Life in Clinton Brewer.” Brewer was a black man who had been convicted in 1923, at the age of eighteen, of stabbing his teenage wife to death. While at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, he read Native Son, Richard Wright’s controversial novel that told the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black Chicagoan who murders two women, one white and one black, and is later executed. Joining many other black male prisoners who felt that Wright had in some way told their own story through the figure of Bigger, Brewer wrote to Wright in hopes that the novelist might be an ally in his effort to be paroled. Impressed by the letter—and by the fact that Brewer had taught himself music composition—Wright visited him in prison in the winter of 1941 and soon dispatched a letter to the governor of New Jersey asking for his parole.
Time magazine reported on Wright’s successful intervention:
The New Jersey State Court of Pardons last week paroled a lifer, Negro Clinton Brewer, because during 19 years in jail he had become a musician. He had written Stampede in G Minor, a jazz tune which sold well on an Okeh record; stood to get an orchestra arranger’s job if freed. Convict Brewer, who had killed his wife during a quarrel, lost his speech because of a prison neurosis. Negro Richard Wright, author of Native Son (the story of a Negro killer), became interested in Musician Brewer. So did Jazz Pundit John Hammond and Band Leader Count Basie, who recorded Stampede and offered the prisoner a job.1
As Wright’s biographer, Michel Fabre, later explained: “Wright…felt convinced, as he told the governor, that Brewer had established through his art an organic social relationship to the world, making a second offense highly unlikely.”2 He was wrong. After working with the Count Basie Orchestra for three months, Brewer killed Mrs. Wilhelmina Washington, a mother of two, because she refused to marry him. He was quickly arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death.3
That same October, Wright received a copy of Dr. Fredric Wertham’s recently published Dark Legend: A Study in Murder.4 Best remembered today as the author of the anti–comic book polemic Seduction of the Innocent (1954), Wertham was at the time senior psychiatrist of the New York City Department of Hospitals, as well as an increasingly prominent public voice of psychiatry.5 He wrote to Wright at the suggestion of the radical journalist Ella Winter, an acquaintance of the novelist who happened to be Wertham’s first cousin.6 Dark Legend presented a psychoanalytic portrait of a young Italian immigrant, Gino, who had killed his mother, ostensibly because she had dishonored his dead father through her promiscuity. Based chiefly on a clinical examination of Gino, the book was also a work of literary analysis, with figures such as Orestes and Hamlet serving as archetypes for Wertham’s exploration of the unconscious motivations that contributed to Gino’s urge to commit matricide.
Wright read Dark Legend and immediately sent an enthusiastic letter to Wertham. “My reactions to Gino, his plight and his crime were so many and varied that it would be futile to attempt to set them down in a letter,” he wrote. “It is enough to say that I think it is the most comprehensive psychological statement in relation to contemporary crime that I have come across. Indeed, it is as fascinating as any novel.”7 Another letter followed, in which Wright asked Wertham to examine Brewer, whom he believed to be psychotic rather than a cold-blooded murderer. Brewer had been a guest in Wright’s home, had sat with him and his wife Ellen for dinner, and news of the second murder had shaken the novelist. Wertham accepted the invitation and examined Brewer. In a later sentencing hearing, Wertham testified that Brewer exhibited a psychotic obsession with control over women and thus was “not in his right mind” at the time of the murder. His testimony was successful; Brewer was spared the death penalty.8
Figure 3. Richard Wright (right) and Count Basie at a recording session in New York City on November 24, 1940. Courtesy of Bettmann / Corbis Images.
The Clinton Brewer case was for Wright and Wertham the genesis of both a personal friendship and a shared commitment to providing psychiatric care to those who had been previously excluded from it: the poor, the oppressed, and, above all, black people. Wright had been interested in the nature of madness for several years, but Brewer’s second murder propelled him toward a systematic attempt to understand sources of mental stress and disorder that could lead a person to murderous violence. Wright’s search for answers inspired him to participate in practical efforts to address the mental health of those he believed to be in most need of access to treatment and care: black people in the ghettos of northern U.S. cities. He was convinced that humane psychotherapy could alleviate much of the psychic strain that engendered violence against others and oneself. He joined Wertham in the belief that psychotherapy rooted in a recognition of the social realities of American life—of racism, violence, and economic exploitation—could provide a weapon in the quest for racial justice. As Wright and Wertham became closer, their relationship culminated in March 1946 with the founding of the first outpatient mental health clinic in and for the community of Harlem, New York, the Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic.
Under the Strain of Color tells the story of how Richard Wright and Fredric Wertham, along with an interracial group of intellectuals, doctors, clergy, and artists, attempted to establish a progressive model of mental health care as an integral part of the struggle for racial equality in the United States in the early post–World War II era. And it reveals the Lafargue Clinic to be a unique prism through which to navigate the contours of race on the unsteady terrain of the midcentury U.S. urban North.
In and for the Community
Fredric Wertham had long wanted to establish a clinic in New York City that would offer inexpensive psychotherapy to African Americans, along with anyone else who could not afford psychiatric treatment. Born in Nuremberg, Bavaria, in 1895 to a nonreligious Jewish family, Wertham attended some of the most prestigious universities in Europe, including King’s College in London and the Universities of Erlangen and Munich. He received his medical degree in 1921 from the University of Würzburg, and did postgraduate work at the Universities of Paris and Vienna, becoming an assistant at Dr. Emil Kraepelin’s famed German Institute for Psychiatric Research, in Munich in 1922. At the end of that year he emigrated to the United States, where he took a position at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins, working with Dr. Adolf Meyer, America’s preeminent psychiatrist at the time. Meyer reputedly coined the term “mental hygiene” around 1910 to refer to the provision of psychiatric services outside of asylums, as a broad type of public mental health program.9 While living in Baltimore in the late 1920s, Wertham became acquainted with the renowned lawyer Clarence Darrow. Darrow soon began referring his black clients to Dr. Wertham because he was the only psychiatrist Darrow knew who was sympathetic to examining and treating African Americans. It was then that Wertham became concerned about the lack of medical and mental health services for black Americans. When he went to work in the psychiatric clinic of New York’s Court of General Sessions in 1932, he noted very early on the relationship between racism, violence, and mental disorders.10
There in New York City, Wertham saw repeated examples of discrimination against African Americans who either voluntarily sought psychotherapy or who were committed to institutions such as Bellevue Mental Hospital, where he directed its Mental Hygiene Clinic from 1936 to 1939.11 If the popular 1940 book Bellevue, by Lorraine Maynard, is any guide, clinicians hardly regarded black patients in any ward of Bellevue as people possessing a mental makeup akin to that of any of the various “white peoples” who frequented the hospital.12 According to Maynard, who wrote her tabloid-style, behind-the-scenes exposé with the help of a Bellevue staff doctor named Laurence Miscall,
[Often] it is possible, with a little practice, to estimate a person’s general condition by his typically racial response…. Most colored folk seem able to accept life as it comes and take trouble in stride. They are apt to make a fine recovery after operation because of this calm, positive flair for living in the moment. They do not get so tense and flurried as other people, and it just doesn’t occur to them to expect the worst…. The average negro is often too inured to discomfort for his own good. Being less physically, mentally or aesthetically sensitive than a white, what he will stand without a murmur is sometimes amazing to the staff.
Published in the same year as Wright’s Native Son, this book consistently trafficked in a variety of well-worn stereotypes about how “Polacks,” “Hebrews,” “Slovaks,” “Spaniards,” “negros,” and other “races” interacted with hospital staff. Perhaps unwittingly, Maynard documented how Belle-vue staff used the mark of racial difference as a substitute for a truly therapeutic reckoning with the problem of diagnosis and treatment for both physical and mental traumas and diseases.13
Wertham’s experiences at Bellevue led him to begin pushing for the establishment of a nondiscriminatory clinic that would address the mental health care needs of African Americans, and he argued that it should be housed within the black community itself, most specifically Harlem. In the late 1930s, Wertham had elicited the interest of the La Guardia administration in a plan to have New York City open and support a mental hygiene clinic in Harlem. But the city never followed through on the plan.14 When Wertham’s attempts to have a city-sponsored clinic foundered, he approached several corporations and philanthropies. He was denied by each of them.
One evening in late 1945, Wertham met for tea with Wright and Earl Brown, the first black staff writer for Life magazine.15 That night, Wertham was again lamenting his inability to secure funding for a Harlem clinic project providing inexpensive psychotherapy to African Americans, along with anyone else who could not afford psychiatric treatment. Sitting in the Gramercy Park apartment in Manhattan that he shared with his wife, Florence Hesketh, Wertham jumped up from his seat and asked his guests, “Do we really need the money?” In the manner that would come to garner him both praise and scorn, allies and enemies, Wertham exclaimed, “Let’s begin without money; we’ll do our worrying later. All we need is talent, and I can get that. Let those of us who feel the need contribute our services and see if psychiatry cannot be given to the poor.”16
Along with having little money, Wertham, Brown, and Wright had no space in Harlem to establish a clinic. Harlem had been a crowded and congested section of New York for many years, but the result of wartime migration was a population of about four hundred thousand African Americans living in a space designed to house seventy-five thousand people. On average there were sixteen hundred people per acre, as compared to six hundred per acre on the notoriously overcrowded Lower East Side.17
Wertham soon found an unlikely home for the clinic, as well as a lifelong ally. In the winter of 1946, the Reverend Shelton Hale Bishop, rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on West 134th Street in Harlem, offered Wertham the use of two rooms in the basement of the church parish house. Bishop had learned of the clinic proposal from the writer Ralph Ellison, who had become associated with Wertham, and of the latest plan through Richard Wright. Bishop was an African American progressive Episcopal priest known for his commitment to social justice and violence-prevention programs, and one of the few prominent clergymen to embrace psychotherapy as a component of his ministry.18
The Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic opened its doors without much fanfare on March 8, 1946, and it operated every Tuesday and Friday evening until it closed in November 1958. The clinic charged its patients twenty-five cents per visit and fifty cents for testifying in court on their behalf if necessary.19 It was free, though, for those who could pay nothing. In its first year and a half alone the clinic saw over two thousand patients, both adults and children. Some were simply in need of someone to talk to about their daily problems; some were indeed suffering from neuroses; others were diagnosed with a psychosis. Some were offered medication to alleviate the immediate tension or anxiety they were undergoing, and in some cases patients were quickly referred to hospitals that the staff deemed trustworthy. The clinic’s staff was drawn from friends, colleagues, and students of Dr. Wertham, as well as members of the Harlem community. All the staff members offered their services free of charge. At its start, the clinic received only small financial contributions from individual, private donors. It would never garner the type of government or philanthropic funding it needed to develop into a full-time outpatient clinic. (In a letter to Wright, Wertham’s wife, Hesketh, wrote, “There has been another rebuff from Marshall Field. I sent you the correspondence. It’s really a definite class thing—no money from the rich and every day, practically, a few dollars from the poor.”20) With the combination of Reverend Bishop’s retirement from St. Philip’s in 1957 and “an unforeseen accumulation of deaths and severe illnesses” among staff members in the subsequent year, the Lafargue Clinic announced in December 1958 that it would have to cease operating.21
Figure 4. Inside the Lafargue Clinic, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church parish house basement, February 1948. Photo by Lisa Larsen.
The clinic took its name and its animating philosophy from the Afro-Cuban French socialist Paul Lafargue. Lafargue (1842–1911) was a physician, an activist, and a social theorist, who, according to the clinic brochure, “devoted his whole life to the fight against oppression, prejudice, bigotry and false science.” He also happened to have been married to Karl Marx’s daughter Jenny Laura. A well-known and highly regarded public speaker, Lafargue also wrote a number of important books, articles, and pamphlets promoting revolutionary socialism. It was in the preface to his polemical book The Right to Be Lazy (1883) that he declared, “In the communist society of the future…the impulses of men will be given a free rein, for ‘all these impulses are by nature good, we have nothing to avoid but their misuse and their excesses,’ and they will not be avoided except by their mutual counter-balancing, by the harmonious development of the human organism.” While not by any means a vehicle for bringing about the advent of communism, the clinic embodied its founders’ embrace of Paul Lafargue’s vision of social and psychological liberation.22
The Lafargue Clinic represented a landmark in both the history of African American encounters with psychiatry and the history of American psychotherapy’s reckoning with the social sources of mental disorders.23 The clinic explicitly incorporated the social experience of racial and class oppression into its diagnostic and therapeutic work. Under the Strain of Color shows that in doing so, the clinic was simultaneously a political and scientific gambit, challenging both a racist mental health care system and supposedly color-blind psychiatrists who failed to consider black experiences of oppression in their assessment and treatment of African American patients. The Lafargue Clinic embodied a distinctly radical confrontation of the psychic costs of antiblack oppression. In doing so, it challenged American psychiatry’s fundamental orientation, directing it to the social aspects of mental disorders among the oppressed.24
Race, Nation, and Normality
The Lafargue Clinic emerged within a nexus of discourses and institutions in the United States that viewed the mental health of each individual citizen as a matter of grave concern for the body politic. In the wake of the Second World War, American social scientists, policy makers, and social service professionals envisioned a normal American citizen whose personality was under persistent pathogenic threats both psychic and political. This idea of normality was expressed in the psychological language of developing healthy personalities, well-adjusted individuals. A considerable number of American behavioral and social scientists, social service workers, and policy makers, particularly in the North, became concerned about whether black Americans could function as healthy American citizens. More specifically there was an interest in understanding the cultural and personal “handicaps” blacks had internalized through years of discrimination and subjugation. Many social scientists and policy makers claimed that these impediments had generated pathologies in the mind and behavior of black Americans. Instead of viewing African Americans as inherently inferior, as prior generations had, many liberal-minded scholars and policy makers contended that years of exclusion and degradation had led to deformation in the basic personality of “the Negro.” Indeed, African Americans were said to bear a “mark of oppression” that negatively shaped their very perception of self and stunted their relations with white Americans and American society in general.25
With the Second Great Migration of African Americans out of the South, their presence in major northern cities such as New York and Philadelphia and Detroit and Chicago, and smaller cities like Providence, led white decision makers to consider in practical terms how best to deal with this burgeoning black population.26 The increased black presence in these cities was not just a demographic issue; many people of all races, including already established black northerners, viewed black migrants as posing social and cultural problems for their cities.27 Politicians, philanthropists, and social scientific researchers directed their attention toward adjusting “the Negro” to the social norms of the urban North. Problems in areas of housing, labor, education, and corrections required both insight and programmatic thinking. The increasingly authoritative knowledge and methods of psychological science and psychiatric therapy, in coordination with the other social sciences, would not only guide the work of adjusting newly settled black migrants to their new environment, but also help adjust the remainder of the black urban population, whose cultural and family life supposedly reflected forms of pathology resulting from their marginalization from the core institutions and norms of American society.28
Social and behavioral scientists’ focus on the pathological makeup of black people—their behavior, their culture, their social structure—was not new in the early postwar years. In the four decades prior to the Second World War, however, there had been a profound shift in the way the human sciences considered what was then named “the Negro problem.” During the nineteenth century and even into the early twentieth century, the Negro problem was thought of in biological terms as the Negro’s inability to adapt to the white man’s superior civilization. But by the start of the twentieth century, anthropologists and sociologists such as Franz Boas and W. E. B. Du Bois began to frame supposedly racially determined, hence biologically determined, differences among human populations as the result of the contingencies of history and culture, rather than ordained by God or fixed by the hand of nature. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this new way of thinking about human variation. By the end of World War II, social scientific thought and research on African Americans focused not on the bio-racial but on the psychological and cultural obstacles to full immersion, assimilation, and integration into American society.29
Race and “race relations” in general quickly came to be understood scientifically in terms of psychological difference, and psychology provided the language for understanding racism and its effects upon individual minority group members, especially black Americans.30 Many social and behavioral scientists contended that prejudice resulted from frustrated intrapsychic impulses and desires that led to aggressive thoughts and behavior expressed as hostility and discrimination. These same scientists argued that the behavior of minority group members victimized by discrimination could be explained in terms of individuals’ ability or inability to manage their responses to frustration and aggression. Many social and behavioral scientists diagnosed racial prejudice as pathological and viewed the amelioration of race relations in therapeutic terms. Advocated by a loose coalition of liberal antiracist social scientists, activists, and artists, this “psychological reworking of race” challenged and moved beyond the social ecological understandings of race expressed by Robert Ezra Park and the Chicago School of sociology, as well as the “Caste and Class” school most associated with the Yale Institute of Human Relations and social anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner of the University of Chicago and his students such as Allison Davis and the young St. Clair Drake.31
This psychological reworking of race represented just one part of a larger shift in the human sciences at midcentury toward a psychodynamic paradigm. Nowhere was this shift expressed more saliently than in the field of psychiatry. During World War II, psychiatrists were able to document and treat the effects of environmental stresses upon soldiers’ personalities and behavior.32 Extending their observations from the context of war to the rest of society, many psychiatrists contended that socio-environmental conditions were important factors in the psychological health of the American people. Psychodynamic psychiatry sought to redirect the study and treatment of mental health and illness from the primarily somatic or biological orientation that marked psychiatry as a specialty within the field of medicine. A new generation of psychiatrists, fresh from their work in the war, envisioned the psychodynamic paradigm as capable of accounting for multifarious sources of mental disorder, many of which exceeded the grasp of somatic psychiatry. Summing up the fundamental framework of psychodynamic psychiatry, the eminent psychiatrist Karl Menninger explained that “sickness and health…was ‘a scale in the successfulness of an individual-environment adaptation.’ At one end was ‘health, happiness, success, achievement, and the like, and at the other end misery, failure, crime, delirium, and so forth.’”33 This scale or continuum of adaptation on the part of the individual required psychiatrists to make use of socio-environmental research to determine the etiology—the source and point of origin—and treatment of mental disorders.
For all its promise as an innovative approach to the nature and treatment of mental illness, the new psychodynamic psychiatry largely overlooked black patients. Racism as a possible etiological source of mental disorder was largely absent from the discourse of this psychiatric movement. It was left to a small group of black psychiatrists and psychologists and their more progressive white (mostly Jewish) colleagues to highlight the relationship between racism and mental illness.
These efforts filtered into the black popular press, inspiring several articles in the New York Amsterdam News, the Chicago Defender, and the Negro Digest. In an article titled “Brown Breakdown,” in the March 1947 issue of Negro Digest, journalist Kay Cremin used the recent experience of black soldiers in the Jim Crow army to draw a direct relationship between racism and mental illness among black Americans. She cited research that showed that under the conditions of segregation and the pressures of discrimination, too many African American soldiers had unnecessarily “lost their emotional equilibrium.” The cause of mental illness for black soldiers was not the shock of war, as in the case of white soldiers, but the unrelenting assault of white supremacy in the military itself. Part of the problem was the inability of white psychiatrists in the military to understand the impact of antiblack racism. Military psychiatrists, the article argued, never bothered to move beyond the stereotypes of “the Negro” as lazy, criminal, or confused, and thus failed to identify racism as a primary cause of the problems some black soldiers had in “adjusting” to military life.34
The article extended this argument to the rest of American society. Cremin suggested that emotional and mental health problems among black Americans had to be understood as a response to the segregation and discrimination they faced in the whole of America. In a context in which the presence and authority of psychiatrists was growing and expanding into the consciousness and actual lives of Americans, this article called upon psychiatrists to take practical measures to understand racism’s effects on “the Negro” and to combat them. “Failing this,” Cremin warned, “white America will find itself with an ever-growing burden on its sanitariums and on its conscience: the burden of Negro mental patients whose minds have cracked under the strain of color.”35
In the years soon after World War II, state and private foundations created new agencies and institutions to promote the mental health of the general population in the United States, but little was done to consider the specific needs of African Americans. In fact, most mental health care professionals had little to say about and little interest in the psychic health of African Americans. Even racist statements in this context were brief and dismissive. In historical studies of this moment of expansion in the provision of mental health services to the American public, black Americans’ needs still rarely come under consideration.36
In the face of this systematic disregard, Fredric Wertham was adamant that the greatest need for mental health care existed among the most oppressed members of U.S. society, people whose psychological needs were routinely dismissed, or reduced to questions of material deprivation. “Negroes are not allowed the luxury of neuroses,” he contended, adding that “the official view is that they are just unhappy, or they need housing, or they feel downtrodden.”37 Further, Wertham argued that the state’s liberalizing extension of various social services failed to address the fact of unequal access to care resulting from the ingrained belief among policy makers and health care providers, not to mention many academics, that black people were simple folk whose only need was to get “fair shake” in the economy. Many whites and not a few black leaders framed “the Negro problem” as simply a matter of fairness: Negroes’ lot would improve if they got a fair shot at employment and had other bread-and-butter needs met.38 Thus, prior to the establishment of the Lafargue Clinic, most elite institutions and policy makers with power to make decisions about the distribution of material and institutional resources did not even consider that black people needed access to mental health care.
Rather than the expression of a desire “to study the Negro’s personality” or a reformist political project in the vein of liberal race relations research and management, the clinic represented the more radical belief that psychotherapy could play an essential part in black New Yorkers’ struggles against systemic inequality. “The Lafargue Clinic is not trying to help adjust people to a vicious environment,” Dr. Wertham told one reporter a few months after the clinic’s opening. “We give them the best psychiatric care to help build strong citizens, fighters against this debilitating ghetto! We want our patients to function in a changing world, and work with others to do it!”39
The Lafargue Clinic thus emerged at a pivotal and in some ways paradoxical moment in the history of the behavioral and medical sciences. On the one hand, the postwar years witnessed a blossoming of the fields of American psychiatry and psychology, an expansion of public and private institutions and resources dedicated to mental health care, and even a growing interest in the psychological roots of prejudice and discrimination. On the other hand, many of the same scholars, policy makers, and institutions responsible for those developments paid little practical attention to the psychological impact on African Americans of living in a racist society. Virtually no institutions dedicated to the mental health needs of African Americans, let alone any clinics offering walk-in psychotherapy in a predominantly black community, existed in the United States prior to the Lafargue Clinic’s founding. It was within this paradox that the La-fargue Clinic rose and fell.40
Social Citizenship and Black Psychic Health
This book contributes to several long-standing and emerging conversations in contemporary African American historiography and the critical study of medicine and the human sciences. One of the most exciting areas of contemporary historical research focuses on the interlocking relationships among biomedicine, institutional racism, structural violence, and community health activism.41 Some of the recent work in this area has drawn on British sociologist T. H. Marshall’s distinction among civil rights, economic rights, and social rights to pose the question of how debates and activism focused upon physical and mental health might provide insight into the substance of citizenship for racialized and other oppressed peoples in modern liberal societies.42 In her study of the Black Panther Party’s fight against medical discrimination, Alondra Nelson refers to the distinction between civil rights and social rights and benefits as the “citizenship contradiction.” She shows that the “health politics” of the Panthers sought to resolve that unique contradiction by mobilizing for access to the tangible accoutrements of social and economic citizenship for poor African Americans, in this case medical care (with dignity). Nelson’s “citizenship contradiction” framework is certainly applicable to the black population of Harlem in the wake of World War II, a community whose citizenship was recognized formally in law but hardly actualized socially in their encounters with the primary institutions of both civil society or the agencies of the state.43
This book also joins the rich body of historical literature examining the central role that social and behavioral scientific knowledge has played in both representations of blackness and in the lives of particular black communities in the twentieth century.44 While some of this literature has celebrated the role of social scientists and their efforts to harness their research to antiracist policy and social change, a good number of these studies present the human sciences as a primary site for the domestication of radical and/or nonnormative black intellectual and literary traditions, social movements, and modes of being in the world. In some ways taking a cue from Ralph Ellison’s critical review in his Shadow and Act (1964) of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944), and Albert Murray’s understudied cultural criticism from the 1960s and 1970s, most importantly The Omni-Americans (1970), much of the historical criticism centers on how the social and behavioral sciences have used research on the cultures and psyches of racialized, particularly black, populations and community locales to portray them as “damaged” or pathological. Representations of African Americans derived from scientific research have indeed proven promiscuously manipulable in the hands of American policy makers and institutional administrators. Historian Daryl Michael Scott has gone so far as to argue that “experts who study social groups, particularly those who engage in policy debates, should place the inner lives of people off limits.”45
I have wrestled with Scott’s admonition for years as I surveyed the history of the Lafargue Clinic’s efforts to link the psychological well-being of Harlem’s black community to a broad campaign for social and racial justice. I have, though, come to agree with Richard Wright himself who succinctly, yet perhaps syllogistically, argued at the time of Lafargue’s founding in 1946 that “oppression really does oppress.” By this he meant that the targets of oppression experienced a degradation of their humanity that had to be acknowledged and combated. For Wright, since social alienation and psychic alienation went hand in glove, the battle against oppression had to be waged on the terrain of both political economy and the psyche. (Martinican psychiatrist and anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon would soon echo Wright in a series of invaluable writings, including his 1952 study Black Skin, White Masks, and The Wretched of the Earth, nine years later.) On this score, Under the Strain of Color echoes Jay Garcia’s recent cultural history of the psychological turn in the work of antiracist fiction and cultural criticism by people like Wright, James Baldwin, and Lillian Smith. Garcia convincingly argues that characterizing Wright as the arch-purveyor of the “psychiatric appeal” for equality founded on social science–based “damage imagery” “makes it difficult to understand the earnest disposition that led Wright and others to maintain that investigating the psychological undercurrents of the racist social order could lead to a socially viable and culturally resonant anti-racism.” Both in his public advocacy and in private writing for himself, Wright held that if psychological knowledge could be harnessed to social justice within new types of institutions such as the Lafargue Clinic, the lives of the oppressed could be bettered and society on the whole transformed.46
Wright and Wertham embraced psychological discourse and the science of psychiatry as tools for understanding black experiences of modern American society. Yet they resisted the general aim of the behavioral sciences to help the putatively abnormal to adjust to the norms of society. Instead, they sought to develop psychiatric knowledge and therapy that might aid everyday people in confronting the social order of white supremacy and capitalist exploitation. To do so, Wertham developed a distinctive version of “social psychiatry,” an orientation to psychiatric diagnosis and psychotherapy that incorporated the social world of the patient into the overall picture of mental health. Wertham did not coin the term “social psychiatry,” but in his writings and public appearances, he consistently trumpeted his particular brand of conjoining the social sciences and psychiatry as a unique advance in understanding the sources and in the treatment of personality problems and mental disorders. Social psychiatry was an attempt to reorient the field of mental health care toward a “progressive social point of view.” Acknowledging the political nature of his efforts, Wertham explained that social psychiatry “does not introduce social partisanship into psychiatry. [Social psychiatry] uncovers scientifically its unconscious or conscious presence in every form of psychiatry that has ever existed. There is no science dealing with human beings that is completely unpolitical.” Psychiatry as practiced at midcentury was sadly on the wrong side of history, according to Wertham, becoming more reactionary and authoritarian as the great cry for democracy went out from everyday people all over the world. “Social psychiatry,” Wertham declared, “affirms that in the historical development of society and its use or abuse of science, periods may occur where seeming adaptation becomes maladaptation; adjustment, maladjustment; normality, a burden; vaunted health, insidious disease. In short, where the physician may be sicker than his patient.”47
The Lafargue Clinic became the institutional embodiment of Wright’s and Wertham’s effort to align a truly social science with the progressive politics of radical social change. The story of that project forms the core thrust of this book. Under the Strain of Color positions the Lafargue Clinic at the center of debates over race relations, mass culture, and the mental and cultural health of the American citizenry at midcentury. The chapters that follow present the intellectual biographies, and in some sense, geographies, of Wright and Wertham, exploring their encounters with ideas, individuals, and institutions that propelled them toward that moment in 1945 when they sat in Wertham’s Gramercy Park apartment and decided to open a clinic in Harlem with or without the money to do so.
The first chapter charts how Richard Wright came to be one of the founders of the Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic, exploring his early intellectual biography to analyze the increasing permeation of psychological discourse into the science and management of race relations. Born in Jim Crow Mississippi in 1908, Wright became part of that stream of human movement in the early twentieth century that came to be known even at the time as the Great Migration. Settling in Chicago on the eve of the Great Depression, Wright soon embraced the tenets of Marxism and even joined the Communist Party (CP) in 1932. At the same time that he encountered Marx and the CP, he began to incorporate new theories of modern human social structures and culture being produced by the famed Chicago School of sociology, in particular the work of Robert Ezra Park and Louis Wirth. This chapter shows that, during his time in Chicago, Wright synthesized habits of mind, writing, and action that would lay the foundations for his later work supporting and establishing institutions dedicated to the psychological and social well-being of the poor, the neglected, and the stigmatized, most especially black recent migrants to New York City.
Chapter 1 also presents a major component of Wright’s life and work that has been overshadowed by a focus on the role of the Communist Party in his formative years, along with often tortuous explications, later, of his European expatriation and embrace of Sartrean existentialism as his governing philosophy. Not only does this book chart Wright’s engagement with psychoanalysis and psychological theories in general, but it presents a portrait of his practical efforts to establish an institutional structure for enacting his emergent project of transforming the way Americans discussed and approached relations between white and black people both collectively and “inter-personally.” He termed his new project the “Conquest of Ourselves,” and it required a form of radical introspection that he argued was the first step toward both psychological and political liberation from the constraints of white supremacy for blacks and whites alike.
While Fredric Wertham is best known for his 1954 anti–comic book polemic Seduction of the Innocent, very little scholarship has been published that situates Seduction or any of his other work within a thorough intellectual biography or within an examination of his relationship to the discourses, institutions, or practices of twentieth-century European and American psychiatry.48 Chapter 2 not only contributes to the biographical literature on one of the mid-twentieth century’s most controversial public intellectuals, but also shows Wertham to be at the center of major developments in psychiatric knowledge and therapeutic techniques. This chapter makes ample use of sources drawn from Wertham’s recently opened archive of collected papers, as well as heretofore untapped material from his mentors and colleagues. Of particular interest to students of the history of medicine is the role Wertham played in navigating among German somatic psychiatry, Freudian psychoanalysis, and Adolf Meyer’s eclectic, pragmatist-inspired model of psychobiology. This chapter also shows Wertham to be instrumental in the development of the study and treatment of criminal psychopathology—a specialty that became the site at which Wertham and Wright converged in the 1940s. Chapter 2 reveals much as well about Wertham’s personality that sowed the seeds of his paradoxical position as simultaneously prominent yet marginal in American psychiatry.
Drawing on a diverse set of sources, including oral histories and patient files, chapter 3 presents a comprehensive exploration of the intellectual, social, and political context from which the Lafargue Clinic emerged and offers a critical analysis of the clinic’s therapeutic techniques and practices, which focused on the social bases of psychic trauma, in light of the dearth of humane mental health care services for African Americans in New York City at the time. This chapter demonstrates that Wertham and his colleagues were engaging in a radical effort to link individual psychic well-being to the project of social justice and transformation. And it situates the clinic within the social, and thus racial, geography of New York City in the 1940s and ’50s, as well as the institutional politics of psychiatry and psychology.
The Lafargue Clinic played a crucial yet unheralded role in the school desegregation cases that culminated in Brown v. Board of Education. Chapter 4 examines Wertham’s October 1951 testimony to the Delaware Court of Chancery in two such cases, in conjunction with the underexamined antiracist foundations of his now infamous 1954 anti–comic book treatise Seduction of the Innocent. Both his testimony and Seduction were based on clinical psychiatric examinations of interracial groups of children conducted at Lafargue. When read together, Seduction and Wertham’s court testimony reveal a provocative, singularly original set of arguments about racism as a public health threat to children of all races. Chapter 4 is followed by a brief epilogue.
The structure of this book has two primary rationales: first is to provide an intellectual genealogy of how the Lafargue Clinic came into being, revealed through the stories of its two primary founders, Wright and Wertham. Second, it aims to go beyond the extant historiography and critical literature emphasizing the sheer novelty and import of Lafargue’s founding moment, to analyze the work of the clinic as a pivotal institution in the unfolding epochal shifts in America’s simultaneous reckoning with race and mental health. What binds each chapter together with the others is a narrative exploration of the scales of historical action and change, of how biography and geography—people, ideas, and places—interact to produce the conditions of possibility for knowledge discovery and new modes of confronting impediments to living human lives with health and dignity in the modern era.