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Spiritual Madness: Race, Psychiatry, and African American Religions
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, white American psychiatrists declared that mental illness among African Americans in the South had reached alarming proportions and argued that, in a notable percentage of these cases, “religious excitement” was the key precipitating factor. This talk explores late nineteenth and early twentieth-century psychiatric theories about race, religion, and the “normal mind” and shows how the emerging specialty of psychiatry drew on works from history of religions to make racialized claims about African Americans’ “traits of character, habit, and behavior.” This history of the intersections of psychiatry and African American religions sheds light on how ideas about race, religion, and mental normalcy shaped African American experience in courts and mental hospitals and on the role the racialization of religion played more broadly in the history of medicine, legal history, and the history of disability.
Judith Weisenfeld is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton University where she is also Associate Faculty in the Department of African American Studies and the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. A specialist in early twentieth-century African American religious history, her work has focused on religion and constructions of race, African American women’s religious history, and religion in film and popular culture. She is the author most recently of New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (NYU, 2016), which won the 2017 Albert J. Raboteau Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions, Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 (California, 2007), and African American Women and Christian Activism: New York's Black YWCA, 1905-1945 (Harvard 1997). Weisenfeld’s work has been supported by fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Academy of Religion. She is an Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer and an elected fellow of the Society of American Historians and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging; Office of Multicultural Affairs; Department of African and African American Studies; Department of American Studies; Department of History; Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies