This season the Martha’s Vineyard Spirituals Choir is singing several spirituals about Emancipation, like “Oh Freedom” and “Free at Last,” and others about the Underground Railroad, like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Hear the Angels Singing.”
Yearning for freedom and a better life comes through so clearly in many spirituals. Did you know that in the antebellum U.S. South the slaves’ yearning for freedom was considered a disease?
At rehearsal tonight, director Jim Thomas told us about “drapetomania.”
Drapetomania, as described by Dr. Samuel Cartwright in “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race” (1851), was the “mental illness” that supposedly caused black slaves to try to escape. The word comes from the Greek drapetes (a runaway slave) and mania (madness). Drapetomania, wrote Dr. Cartwright, was “much more curable” than other forms of “mental alienation.” Slaves, he advised, should be treated like children and forced to submit to adult (white) authority. Treating them as equals only encouraged the disease. Slaves should be treated kindly, but if symptoms of drapetomania surfaced nevertheless “whipping the devil out of them” was advised.
Free at last, free at last
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last