Among Murderers, institutions, mental illness, racism, rehabilitation

Blackbird Minstrels of Asylumia

I’ve recently been spending time with patients and staff who provide and/or participate in cultural day programs at a state mental institution in New York City. In line with my first book, Among Murderers: Life After Prison, I want to find out which methods of “rehabilitation” currently predominate and how individuals create communities within institutions. How do they bond and how do they distance themselves from those they don’t want to associate with? How do staff, patients and volunteers survive the daily challenges they face, individually and as a group? Having interviewed inmates and staff in the institution’s farming and art programs, I’m also interested in the remaining traces of earlier “rehabilitative” methods. I’m not sure yet whether this will lead to a story or another book (or both), but I do know that I want to continue to convey the daily lives of people at society’s margins to the general public.

Naturally, my ears perked up when a friend mentioned Benjamin Reiss’s Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture. I was particularly absorbed by the book’s second chapter, in which Reiss writes about a troupe of blackface performers that assembled within the New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica in the mid-19th century. The group called itself the Blackbird Minstrels of Asylumia.

The idea of rehabilitating mentally ill patients by forcing them to participate in debating societies, lecture series, literary journals, dance and dramatic groups came about in the early 19th century. Culture, it was discovered, could be used as a therapeutic tool—and as an opportunity for surveillance and discipline. Under the aegis of culture, authorities attempted to enforce societal norms and standardized, moral behavior, and those who were forced to carry this “ideological baggage” were easy prey. Mental patients in state institutions are for the most part severely sick, isolated and, incapable of resistance.

Here is how Reiss reflects on the irony of white schizophrenics in burned cork and grease performing for patients and staff in the New York State Lunatic Asylum:

“In masking themselves, the outcast actors imitated figures who were equally outcast—the slaves and urban Northern blacks who were tarred by blackness much as the actors themselves were stigmatized by the label of insanity. They enacted scenarios of slave life for the ultimate captive audience; and under the watchful eye of the asylum authorities, they turned a famously unruly form into a spectacle of their own capacity for self-control.”

Reiss calls the performances “a humiliating reminder of [the performers’] similarity to the downtrodden figures portrayed on stage.” He wonders how one could reform the mentally ill “with a form of amusement that appealed to the ‘lower sentiments.’” In other words, blackface groups created caricatures of African Americans’ presumed heightened and grotesque sexuality, their laziness, stupidity and low work ethics—all qualities that asylum authorities were trying to exorcise.

To appease the middle class audience that treated the Lunatic Asylum as a popular tourist destination—Reiss points out that in its first decade Utica’s insane asylum had more visitors than Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky—the authorities turned the Blackbird Minstrels of Asylumia shows into a “chaste, pleasing and elegant” enterprise (in their words). Reiss calls the blackface shows “stylized models of incorrect behavior.”

Reiss reminded me of the racial and gender conflicts I witnessed at the mental institution where I am currently reporting. I noticed that some individuals, however sick, downtrodden and marginalized, invariably point their fingers at those who, from their perspective, are even lower on the totem pole. I have heard staff refer to African Americans as “negroes.” Patients told me about their disgust of “those criminals who are just faking mental illness and who belong in jail.” Some women and men I spoke to have readily shared their sexual assault experiences within various institutions.

I have also come across decades-long friendships between white staff members and African American patients, between heterosexuals and homosexuals, between women and men. But the racial conflicts I’ve witnessed, which always seem amplified in poorly-run state institutions such as mental hospitals and prisons, made me wonder whether the blackface minstrels of the 19th century offered a way for mental patients (and staff) to make their own unbearable status more bearable. For some of the down and out, life might be easier to endure when given opportunities to stand above those who might have it even harder. This, of course, doesn’t excuse the former existence of blackface troupes, but it adds an important layer that Reiss leaves out.