On Mental Health Metalanguages: From New York to Newtown

Names of the Newtown Shooting Victims



I just wrote about violence. And I don’t want to add to any of the media hype surrounding recent events.

I only want to say this:

We need to get clear about what we call for when we call for mental health reform.

We need to be careful.  Because it sounds like we are putting it in the same category as gun control and school security.  And that is a dangerous correlation to make.  Putting those three things together constructs a symbology of state violence we are not being proactive about deconstructing.

Reforming mental health services–what does this mean to you?  Does it mean we see someone walking down the street, talking to themselves, and we call the police who lock them up–just this time in a facility and not a jail?  Does it mean we target the young, white boy wearing a black trench coat or the hyperactive black boy running around the room or the too skinny girl sitting in the corner gazing out the window?  Does it mean we create holistic, community-centered alternatives to institutionalization and overmedication?  Does it mean we build higher, thicker walls around our schools, workplaces, and homes to keep out “the crazies” but forget to deal with the fact that mental illness is, as Rha Goddess once said, literally in the damn water.  What is treatment, recovery, and rehabilitation in a world where we tie mental health reform to jail and the police aren’t always friendly to those of us who are black, brown, queer, poor, homeless?  We want to feel safe but how do we create safe spaces and community acountability without setting up new and even more dangerous stigmas?

I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise—in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population.

We had better get really critical, really quickly, because we are not all speaking the same language.

We don’t want another drug war.  We know who will suffer–is already suffering–first.


Kim Kardashian. Saartje Baartman. Black Women & their Bums

Because this deserved more than just a Retweet:

To anyone remotely familiar with women’s sexual history, Kardashian’s W photo (see image above) no doubt evokes the Hottentot Venus. Kardashian’s positioning, her behind as the main attraction, and her from-the-neck-down platinum airbrushing–perhap used to invoke a racially ambiguous signal–visually recollects the imaging and dressing of Sarah Baatman, a Khoisan young woman exhibited around 19th century European as a freak show….

Although Kardashian holds friendships with Black female stars in their own rights, the reality star’s attention seems to upstage her social set– and most certainly her backside does. Still the question begs itself, Is Kardashian’s somehow performing Black femaleness with her toting exaggerated behind? Does she somehow appropriate the deconstructed parts of Black females the world fancies, juxtaposing her fair skin, and long hair, creating some unmatched sexualized package the modern world has yet to see?…

Thank you to Geneva Thomas, author of the piece, for going there and giving us the skeleton–or a ghost?  a reminder?–from which we can start discussing the fraught relationship between mainstream society and black women’s bodies, between the butt in general and the Ass as a signifier of larger, more complicated & colonial histories.

Just for some context:

Sartjee, the Hottentot Venus Digital ID: 1107949. New York Public Library

Sartjee, the Hottentot Venus Digital ID: 1107949. New York Public Library

The caption reads:  “Sartjee, The Hottentot Venus.  Shown in London in 1811.  Sartjee is 22 years old is 4 feet 10 inches high, and has (for an Hotentot) a good repacity.  She lived in the occupation of a cook at the Cape of Good Hope.–Her country is situated not less than 600 miles from the Cape.  The inhabitants of which are rich in cattle and sell them by barter for a mere trifle, a bottle of brand or small roll of tobacco will furnish several sheep–Their principal trade is in cattle skins & tallow–Beyond their Nation is an other, of small stature, very subtle & fierce; the Dutch could not bring them under subjugation; and shot them wherever they found them.  9th, Fairholt 1811”

Image Credit:  F. W. Fairholt, Tobacco, Its History and Associations: including and acount of the plant and its manufacture; with its modes of use in all ages and countries (London, 1859), plate 146 [pdf without illustrations available here] Courtesy of Digital NYPL


Courtesy of Krista A. Thompson, Emory University

The caption reads: Several prints dating from the early nineteenth century illustrate the sensation generated by the spectacle of “The Hottentot Venus.” A French print entitled “La Belle Hottentot,” for example, depicts the Khosian woman standing with her buttocks exposed on a box-like pedestal. Several figures bend straining for a better look, while a male figure at the far right of the image even holds his seeing-eye glass up to better behold the woman’s body. The European observers remark on the woman’s body: “Oh! God Damn what roast beef!” and “Ah! how comical is nature.”

The spectacle & the gaze.

For more information, go ask my Politics.  They call her Zora Walker.  (Search tag: #saartje)


How Do You Draw a Rape?

“From sugar, to investment in planter-dominated banks, to, of course, the trade in slaves itself, the whole plantation complex stank of the arousal of rape.”

~Edward E. Baptist, “”Cuffy,” “Fancy Maids,” and “One-Eyed Men”: Rape, Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States,” American Historical Review 106 (December 2001), 1619-1650.

I am #nowreading Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende.  It’s like watching a car accident, a collision of metal, glass and soft, meaty human bodies, in slow motion.  Into the blender, hit mix, tear flesh from bone, coat the glass red, hemoglobin run a muck under the relentless pressure of some outside violence, ignore the scream of the gears, the turning blades as bone matter resists, but, no, push through, taking, tearing, plunging forward simply because you have the power to do so.  Rip apart, swirl together, then call it pacification, christianization, civilization, natural order of Man.

I’ve spent almost a week sitting in the heart of slavery.  Above and beyond my usual scholarship, teaching and service, I attended the Middle Passages: Histories and Poetics conference at CUNY-Graduate Center.  The conference was curated by (or dj-ed, or conjured as different participants noted at different times) by Herman Bennett, professor of history at CUNY, who specializes in early Latin American history.  The conference, which included keynote speeches by Eve Troutt Powell and Saidiya Hartman, tackled the complex relationship between histories of slavery and literatures of slavery, a relationship that in reality is wrapped up in the credo that “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

For me, one of the most intense manifestations of the legacy of slavery is the acute vulnerability of black women (re: “any and all African descent”) to the permutations of global economies, political regimes and everyday caprice.  It is a vulnerability that is so old (re: slavery began in the 15th century) that violence enacted on the bodies and selves of women of African descent is so commonplace as to be hardly worth mentioning.

So that when I picked up Island Beneath the Sea on Monday, I knew that reading it would be a difficult experience.  I didn’t realize how much.  If only it were simply a matter of dealing with Zarité, the slave woman born of a rape, subjected to rape, all of her incredible mental and spiritual energies consigned to the limits imposed upon her by a heteropatriarchal slave regime–then perhaps I could digest it.  It sounds amazing, but years of practice consuming the politics of power and resistance at slavery’s core has imbued me with a willful sadomasochism.  That is to say, as a survivor of slavery (yes, these hundreds of years later), I attack the history with the zeal, empathy, passion and fury that…well, that only a rape-crisis counselor could understand.

But it is not just that.

Because the Island Beneath the Sea is set in the context of the Haitian Revolution.  So it is not only about a woman (after all, was she ever a child?) struggling to be a woman in a world that will not recognize her.  It is also about a world that will not recognize an entire people (re: slaves) and their aspirations for freedom…and a people that will not recognize the festering, decomposing core which the logic of slavery relies on.  It is about the contradiction at the heart of the making of the modern world.

How to digest that?  How to write that?  How do you draw a rape?