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“He was running it like a plantation”: Psychiatric spaces and social death in the Jim Crow South

Dr. Kylie Smith, Emory University

September 13, 2021 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm EDT · Virtual (Zoom link to be sent to those who register)

The Humanities Council Exploratory Grant in Collaborative Humanities, the Center for Digital Humanities, and the Departments of African American Studies, Art & Archaeology, and Religion

In 1967 a government inspector reported that conditions for Black patients in psychiatric hospitals in Alabama were the worst she’d ever seen, especially in terms of the physical spaces and in the lack of treatment options. Her report, and a subsequent court case, revealed the many ways that even psychiatric spaces in the American south could not escape the long shadow of the plantation as patients were put to work, shot, beaten, and left to die.

In this presentation, Dr. Kylie Smith explores the long history of the shadow of the plantation, as both a symbol and a reality, in state psychiatric hospitals in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi in the twentieth century. Drawing on extensive archival work Dr. Smith demonstrates that Black patients were subject to psychiatric spaces that were little more than the plantation reimagined: spaces in which containment, not cure, was the object.

Unravelling these systems has revealed the intersection with the Civil Rights movement, as well as the trend toward mass incarceration. It has also demonstrated the difficulty and ethical dilemmas of tracing the lives of vulnerable people in the psychiatric archive. In this sense, the process of this project raises important questions about the writing of history itself, revealing the power and politics inherent in Southern archives, especially at the intersection with the history of medicine.

This event is organized as a part of Art Hx: Visual and Medical Legacies of British Colonialism. During the 2021-2022 academic year, Art Hx presents curative / spaces, a programming series that explores the relationship between race, space, and healthcare through the lens of art and design. We will host a range of events that consider how experiences of race and medicine are spatially produced in architecture, design, and in the circulation of art. We want to reflect on how these relationships affect access to resources, meanings about the body, and people’s understandings and conceptions of healthcare. We hope the series will help us imaginatively redesign these processes of health injustice and build new practices of care together through art’s ability to transform society.

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