Monday, July 7, 2008

Houston Museum Exposes Capitalist Slavery

HOUSTON – The magnificent University Museum of the Texas Southern University affiliated with the world famous John Biggers’ School of Art has outdone itself. I attended the current exhibition “Drapetomania: A disease called freedom” today and the museum staff treated me by playing recordings of Paul Robeson singing “Joe Hill” and “No more auction block for me” as well as others.

Although the photos and artifacts documenting the atrocities of slavery in this country and the West Indies delivered a hammer blow to my senses, I walked away from the experience realizing the progress that working people have made over the last two centuries. The exhibit presented the instruments used to keep slaves submissive including spiked collars, and chains and shackles. One painting portrayed “The barbarities of the West Indias” where a white man was forcibly bathing a black man in a hot tub of water and preparing to apply hot curry scrubs to his skin in an effort to maintain his dominance. Notices of slavery auctions, and the last will and testament of a woman leaving a female slave in 1823 to her descendents documented the brutality of capitalism when it transformed human beings into commodities which were bought and sold on the market. Numerous photos of enslaved children picking cotton and engaged in other work activities were heart wrenching.

The main theme of the exhibition was on the medical term coined by Louisiana physician and psychologist, Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, drapetomania. The term is a primitive attempt to pathologize slaves’ efforts to run away from oppressive masters. The term labels runaway slaves as “mad and crazy.” The remedy, it seems, according to the doctor, was to place the slaves away from free states and to keep them in submission. The doctor maintained that submission was the God given natural state of the slave and that to allow anything else would only lead to them running away.

The exhibit also presents the accomplishments of working African Americans. Photographers and furniture makers of African descent from Cincinnati were displayed. There were photos of Frederik Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Samuel Taylor-Coleridge, Sojourner Truth and numerous other great African-Americans. Books describing the Underground Railroad and of great African Americans were on display. There was a photo of and letter from California’s only black Governor, Pio Pico. A notice opposing lynching printed by the NAACP decried the lynching of 3436 people between 1889 and 1922. Tribute was paid to the great abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, who published “The Liberator” and a copy of this newspaper was on display as well.

I realized that concepts similar to “drapetomania” are still in use today. Capitalism strives to lower wages and reduce benefits of working people in order to maximize profits. In order to accomplish this, various terroristic tactics are employed to keep workers submissive. Strike breaking and union busting as well as the anti-communist witch hunts of the mid twentieth century come to mind as efforts to break the tendencies of working people to escape from unbearable working conditions. Of course, this running away from the miseries of working conditions has taken many forms. Drug abuse, alcoholism and other excessive pleasure seeking activities are pursued by people to sedate their miseries resulting from low wages and benefits and lack of dignity and respect on the job site, i.e. alienation. Working people seeking to form unions and resist imperialist foreign policies are labeled as “terrorists” by the right wing and are degraded for their efforts to improve their working conditions. Substance abuse is a negative means of running away from miseries whereas forming unions and fighting back is a positive response to the unjust nature of capitalist oppression.

It is helpful to think in terms of the progress we have made since the early nineteenth century. This fabulous art exhibit provides a great deal of evidence that human beings united in their efforts to oppose oppressors can achieve the goals implied in the great song, “We shall overcome.”

James Thompson is a psychologist and social justice activist in Houston

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