Mental Health and The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow | Reading Response

Michelle Alexander’s seminal text on the racial caste system of mass incarceration in the United States penal system should be required reading for every student in the United States. Alexander’s bold claim is that the modern United States prison system functions as a method of racialized control, a new Jim Crow, and she supports her arguments with excellent research: although the text is short, it is packed with well-research information that is fully sourced and cited.

Alexander begins by taking the reader on a brief history of how class control was achieved through racialized systems so effectively that race became viewed as a valid reason to control a population in and of itself. This overview spans Bacon’s Rebellion to the post-Civil War Jim Crow system, and she identifies the parallels between these seemingly disparate institutions with an incisive perception. After establishing the premise that systems of racialized control are woven into the fabric of United States life, she turns her eye to the War on Drugs and how recent changes in the U.S. criminal justice system create a form of control which allows and even encourages both conscious and unconscious forms of racism to be implemented at every level of the criminal justice system, from intake to prosecution to sentencing to incarceration to release. Having established the evidence for this claim, Alexander moves on to the ways in which the U.S. criminal justice system has prevented regulation, oversight, or questioning of the new paradigm through the means of legislation and Supreme Court decisions which overturn past precedent and knock down the various boundaries intended to prevent such racism. She then lays out the disturbing parallels between the restrictions of Jim Crow and the restrictions placed on felons which allow for discrimination in housing, welfare, and voting. Finally, she examines what this institutionalized system of racial control means for the United States and various civil rights movements, as well as some solutions to address the human rights violations currently occurring.

This was my third reading of the text, and Alexander’s arguments and research have started to become familiar enough to allow new questions to arise during the reading. As Alexander says in the introduction,

“It is not possible to write a relatively short book that explores all aspects of the phenomenon of mass incarceration and its implications for racial justice. No attempt has been made to do so here. This book paints with a broad brush, and as a result, many important issues have not received the attention they deserve … What this book is intended to do — the only thing it is intended to do — is to stimulate a much-needed conversation about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States.” (loc. 34)

Keeping this in mind, one issue which looms as a silent elephant throughout the text is the state of mental healthcare in the United States. Concurrent with the rise of the New Jim Crow, mental healthcare has taken on new parameters and understandings in the United States. Various emotional and psychiatric disorders that were once believed to be caused by external factors, whether it be environment, nurture, or spiritual uncleanliness, are now considered to be inherent biological conditions. In the 1950s and 1960s, this new understanding of mental illness arose, coinciding with the various social movements advocating personal rights. For the first time in United States history, the ideas that mental illness has a biological root, and that mentally ill people are deserving of basic human rights, too, began to gain traction.

Unfortunately, as Alexander so clearly shows, an increase in social awareness that a form of bigotry is unacceptable is not the same as actually eradicating said bigotry. Bias against sufferers of mental health disorders has continued, and in fact worsened. A 2011 study titled, “Biogenetic explanations and public acceptance of mental illness: systematic review of population studies,” published in 2011 in The British Journal of Psychiatry, summarized the situation in these words,

“Overall, support for the claim that biogenetic causal attributions are associated with less stigmatising attitudes towards people with mental illness is small. Particularly with schizophrenia, biogenetic causal beliefs seem to increase rather than decrease rejection of those affected.” (Angermeyer, et al)

Despite advances in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders, the bias against them has continued to grow, as have the costs of treatment. With high treatment costs and strong stigma against mental illness, individuals from poor communities face serious hurdles in acquiring and maintaining mental health treatment from the outset. Many individuals do not even get past the initial significant resistance to admitting there might be a neuro-biological cause to certain violent, addictive, or self-destructive behaviors in order to seek treatment. This is of especial concern in communities of color throughout the United States, where resistance to and stigma of mental illness intersect with the disparate impact effects of institutional racism. This in turn creates communities that are at high risk of experiencing mental illness, yet the individual actors are unlikely to seek assistance or form supportive communities to address the issues.

Even if an individual overcomes the stigma and seeks diagnosis and treatment, there is no guarantee they can afford or even access it. Until the Affordable Care Act passed, many states did not require parity in mental health treatments, which meant that prescription medications and doctor co-pays could be significantly higher for those in a position to seek private care. For those who are not in a position to seek private care, the funding for low-income mental health care is in a dismal state.

It began in 1961, when a joint commission of the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association recommended a plan to deinstitutionalize long-term psychiatric patients. This plan was reliant on the establishment of community  mental health centers where patients who would not otherwise have access to mental healthcare could receive outpatient care. In 1963, Congress even passed a law to provide funding for such community mental health centers. Unfortunately, the funding never came through, due to a confluence of factors including public stigma against mental illness, the situation in Vietnam, and the economic crisis. Ultimately, the failure of deinstitutionalization was an over determined situation, occurring because of a multitude of factors. After 1963, with the congressional promise of future funding, hospitals bowed to the increasing pressure from patient’s rights movements and the medical community to release long-term psychiatric patients and decommission the long-term care facilities. This process went much more quickly than anticipated, even as it became apparent that the necessary funding for community mental healthcare centers would not materialize. As a result, mentally ill individuals from poor communities found themselves without access to healthcare, and often lost their homes, jobs, families, and even lives.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter signed the Mental Health Systems Act intended to increase mental health funding. Unfortunately, Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 and decreased federal spending on mental healthcare services by 30 percent, then shifted the remainder of the burden to state and local governments. Within 5 years, the federal government would cover a mere 11 percent of the budgets for treatment of mental health disorders. As a result, the rates of mentally ill homeless and incarcerated individuals continued to rise. Although most people in the U.S. will encounter some form of mental illness in their lifetime either through personal experience, a friend, or a family member, this does not translate to widespread acceptance or understanding of mental illness.

Mental illness alone, when left untreated, is usually devastating to both the individual and their family. This effect is compounded when the individual is living with a support system that doubts the validity of mental illness and stigmatizes the sufferer. Additionally, many individuals who are unable to access treatment for their illness turn to forms of self medication, such as drugs and alcohol. When a medical explanation for anti-social behaviors such as drug use as self-medication is taken off the table, the actions of a mentally ill individual are recast as the choices of a criminal. In this context, the deinstitutionalization of long-term psychiatric care and the nationwide funding cuts for community mental health services in low income neighborhoods become an inextricable part of the question of prison reform.

One in three hundred U.S. residents, which translates to over half a million people in the United States, lived in mental institutions by the 1950s. Within 20 years, only 160,000 Americans were institutionalized for mental health disorders, thanks to the aforementioned push for deinstitutionalization rather than restructuring of the existing mental health system. The prevailing belief was that the new antipsychotic medications would treat the biological root of mental illnesses, thereby allowing the mentally ill to live ordinary lives outside of psychiatric institutions — and, coincidentally, shutting down the taxpayer-funded institutions would save communities a lot of money. By 2013, there was one psychiatric bed per 7,100 Americans. To give some context to this data, it is estimated that 1 in 5 families have a family member who suffers from mental illness.

By 2009, 20 to 25 percent of the homeless population suffered from some form of severe mental illness, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (National Coalition). A 2010 study by the National Sheriff’s Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center showed that three times as many mentally ill people are housed in prisons or jails as in hospitals. About 40 percent of mentally ill people have been arrested at least once in their lifetime, often as a result of not being able to access treatment. A 2006 Justice Department study cited in the New York Times says that over half of the inmates incarcerated in United States prisons have a mental health disorder. To give some context to this data, only 6 percent of Americans are classified as severely mentally ill (Kristof).

Many people prefer to ignore the problem or blame the sufferer. This leads patients to engage in self-denial of diagnosis, lapsed treatment, and self-medicating behaviors which further cause individuals to isolate their support systems, lose their employment, and end up in prison or homeless. The stigma against mental illness also interacts with Federal law to create a discriminatory system relying on unconscious bias similar to the felon system — if an individual “outs” themselves in employment situations as undergoing treatment for a diagnosed mental illness, it is nearly as effective as checking the “felony conviction” box on an application in ensuring discriminatory treatment. The link between homelessness, mental illness, self medication, and incarceration is certainly exacerbated by the federal policies toward drug users and felons as outlined by Alexander.

The defunding of mental healthcare programs and the increased funding for prisons occurred nearly simultaneously, and as such they are intrinsically bound up on nearly every level. Indeed, Reagan’s invocation of “welfare queens” to defund social assistance programs relied on a particular story about an Illinois woman whose deception and welfare fraud took on legendary proportions. In a Slate feature written by Josh Levin on the woman in question, she is revealed as Linda Taylor, born Martha Miller. Linda Taylor was one of many identities; the little white girl named Martha Miller grew up to become a master of disguise who convinced people, at various times, that she was a woman of Black, Asian, or Native American heritage ranging in age from 25-40. She had seven husbands and claimed multiple children (many of whom were kidnapped) as her own, and was accused of several murders. Miller bounced between incarceration and freedom, and when she was out of prison she supported herself through various types of fraud. Levin asks,

“What kind of person behaves this way? In the 1970s, psychologist Robert Hare developed a checklist to assess a given subject’s personality. The symptoms on Hare’s list read like a catalog of Linda Taylor’s known behaviors and personal characteristics: glib and superficial charm, pathological lying, manipulativeness, lack of empathy, parasitic lifestyle, frequent short-term relationships, and criminal versatility. Of the 20 items on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, nearly every one describes the welfare queen to some degree. Dr. Steve Band, a behavioral science consultant and an expert on criminal behavior, says “people with that personality know right from wrong.” Dr. James Fallon, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California at Irvine and the author of The Psychopath Inside, says that Taylor “screams psychopathy.” Along with deriving pleasure from criminal behavior, he says, psychopaths “really like getting away with it”—that “the ones who have intelligence, they don’t want to get caught.” (Levin)

Levin acknowledges that armchair diagnosis is a dangerous game to play, yet his suggestions is supported with remarkable evidence and testimony. If he is correct and Martha Miller was a psychopath, the deinstitutionalization and defunding of mental healthcare in the 1960s may have, ironically, led to the lack of affordable and accessible treatment which might have prevented the creation of one of the most polarizing figures in the Reagan campaigns for the war on drugs and the defunding of social welfare programs. That said, the war on drugs and defunding of social welfare programs would have occurred with or without Martha Miller’s unwitting assistance; she was a pawn in an over determined situation.

Although Martha Miller may be a particularly notorious example of the intersections between lack of mental healthcare, poverty, and prison, she is hardly the only one. Consider Aaron Alexis, a young mentally ill black man who opened fire inside the Washington Navy Yard in Washington D.C. and killed 12 people. Alexis complained of delusions and hallucinations prior to the massacre and had a history of arrests for violent behavior, yet his mental health issues had gone ignored and untreated. He was former Navy working as a civilian contractor for the U.S. Military, and his FBI file shows that his superiors were not unaware of his delusions … yet he did not seek treatment, nor is there any indication that it was recommended to him or made a requirement by the military officials or civilian courts he came in contact with. Or, on a less dramatic but no less individually traumatic scale, consider India. Profiled in The New York Times, India is a 42 year old black woman who suffers from PTSD and bipolar disorder. She has tried to seek treatment for her psychiatric disorders, but has found affordable healthcare to be inaccessible. As a result, she does what many mentally ill individuals who cannot afford treatment or medication do — she self medicates. India’s medication of choice is heroin, and she has spent her entire adult life incarcerated due to drug related offenses (Kristof).

As these examples show, some mentally ill individuals are incarcerated for reasons that can be addressed by accessible treatment, such as India. Others, like Alexis or Miller, might have been better served by long-term care facilities. It is a sad truth that some mentally ill people do need lifelong in-care treatment, and cannot be incorporated into society as a whole. That is not to say all mentally ill people cannot live in society — in fact the majority of mentally ill persons can, with regular treatment, move through society as active and productive members. In this vein, writer Elijah Wolfson suggests in Newsweek that the ACA may be, “the biggest piece of prison reform the U.S. will see in this generation.” His argument is that the provisions for affordable and accessible mental healthcare will address that signification portion of the prison population imprisoned due to circumstances arising from the non-treatment of their mental illness, such as self-medicating with illegal drugs.

Wolfson is onto something, but it won’t address all the mentally ill who are shuffled to prison in lieu of healthcare. Even with accessible mental health coverage, there is still that 6 percent of the population who suffers from “severe” mental illness, that is, delusions, hallucinations, and violent tendencies. There is still endemic social stigma against mental illness, which leads to people resisting treatment and diagnosis, or discontinuing treatment once it becomes effective because they believe they have been cured. There is still the very serious problem that a small portion of seriously mentally ill people will simply never be able to integrate into society as functioning and productive members, and without the social support programs and the understanding of family members, the only long-term care facility available to them is the United States prison system.

History has shown us that it is necessary to put safeguards in place to prevent the psychiatric institutionalization of healthy individuals who hold politically deviant attitudes, and history has also demonstrated that it is absolutely necessary to have watchdog organizations to combat the extreme human rights violations that have so often occurred in psychiatric institutions and asylums … but the painful and confrontational reality is that long-term psychiatric institutions have not yet lost their place in society, and the incarceration of untreated and severely mentally ill persons is neither a humane nor adequate solution.

Alexander’s solution to addressing the racial caste system within the United States prison system is spot on, and a conclusion I absolutely agree with. Racial discrimination as we experience it today arose in the unique environment of United States capitalism, and is a direct and systemic result of the so-called “job creators” inculcating class warfare within the proletariat based on arbitrary racial divisions. White workers were given sops of privilege to coax them to repress their working class brethren of color, and it worked. Shamefully, it worked for centuries. Alexander is absolutely right in stating that a true and honest conversation about race needs to occur in America, and that to truly end racial caste systems in American, we must lay down our racial bribes and join hands with people of all colors to achieve working class solidarity in order to address the systemic racial bias in the prison system.

That said, we also need to address the role of mental health care in society, and especially in black communities. In The Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks, Rebeccca Skloot covered the various human rights violations perpetuated against black Americans in the 20th century alone, and showed how these human rights violations has led to a deep-seated distrust toward healthcare providers and seeking medical treatment. Intertwined and inseparable from the distrust of institutionalized medicine is the unhappy history of black Americans. In the antebellum South, many slave owners believed that ‘hard working’ slaves were less susceptible to nervous disorders than their white masters, as they were not exposed to the “disappointments” of a refined life.

Modern definitions of mental illness were often constructed around the experience, observation, and treatment of privileged patients in private care. For marginalized communities, mental illness and criminality have long been closely associated. Treatment for the socially marginalized mentally ill has been less compassionate, ranging from incarceration and neglect to human rights violations and medical experimentation. The issue of stigma toward mental illness and the resultant resistance to seeking diagnosis and treatment is a topic of much discussion in the mental healthcare community, and the connections between mental health stigma, access to treatment or lack thereof, and prison reform need to be examined as a whole.

For individuals of color, who are already subject to a discriminatory and damaging system, recognition of severe mental illness has historically only highlighted their vulnerability within the existing structure. Because of their unique situation and classification as property or non-legal persons (depending on location) in U.S. history, it has traditionally been far more dangerous for black Americans to acknowledge mental illness within their communities than it has for other marginalized communities throughout the history of the United States. This reality is bound up in the black American experience and understanding of mental illness, as well as the social repercussions.


Citations and References

Alexander , Michelle. The New Jim Crow. 2nd. New York: The New Press, 2012. eBook.

Angermeyer, Matthias, Anita Holzinger, et al, et al. “Biogenetic explanations and public acceptance of mental illness: systematic review of population studies.” British Journal of Psychiatry. 199. (2011): 367-372. Web. 6 Mar. 2014.

Kristof, Nicholas. “Inside a Mental Hospital Called Jail. “New York Times. 08 02 2014: n. page. Web. 6 Mar. 2014.

Levin, Josh. “The Welfare Queen.” Slate. 19 12 2013: n. page. Web. 6 Mar. 2014.

McClelland, Mac. “Schizophrenic. Killer. My Cousin.”Mother Jones. 05 2013: n. page. Web. 6 Mar. 2014.

Mental Illness and Homelessness.” Fact Sheet. Washington, D.C.: 2009.

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksNew York: Crown Publishing Group, 2011. eBook.

Tomasky, Michael. “The Great GOP Mental-Health Hypocrisy.” Daily Beast. 20 09 2013: n. page. Web. 6 Mar. 2014.

Wolfson, Elijah. “How Obamacare May Lower the Prison Population More Than Any Reform in a Generation.” Newsweek. 03 03 2014: n. page. Web. 6 Mar. 2014.

50 Books Challenge (update)

I committed earlier this year to reading 50 books by authors of color, with an ongoing list. Since I’ve finished 2 books (well, really 3 — but I re-read The New Jim Crow, and that was for class, anyway), I figured I’d update the list.

  1. Captured, by Beverly Jenkins
  2. The Will to Change, by bell hooks
  3. The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros
  4. Huntress, by Malinda Lo
  5. Kindred, by Octavia Butler
  6. Zahrah the Windseeker, by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
  7. The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn-Johnson

Captured was cool. Like I’ve said before, I’m not really a fan of romance novels, so I’m hardly in a position to critique it as an expert in the genre. It did follow the conventions of the romance novels I prefer — the formation of the relationship was prioritized over sex, and the guy was respectful of the woman and her boundaries. It was historically accurate, so far as I am aware, and I tend to be somewhat anal retentive in that area. I liked that Jenkins’ actually described the character’s skin tone (e.g. dark brown with golden undertones) as opposed to the flat, generically ethnic terms I’m used to seeing people of color described as (e.g. Mexican, Chinese, Black).

I wasn’t as much of a fan of Cisneros’ work, but that’s mostly a stylistic issue. I tend to enjoy escapist fantasy, not surrealistic literary fiction. The disconnected, ephemeral sense of place that permeated The House on Mango Street made it difficult for me to connect with the protagonist on any meaningful level. I thought her writing was objectively beautiful — very lyrical and vibrant. She painted these gorgeously evocative word pictures that floated through the text like disjointed vignettes of half-recalled childhood memories — but I didn’t leave the book with an overarching connection to the protagonist or any sense of plot, just a vague film of confusing nostalgia. Now, if that’s the experience you’re looking for in your reading, then I highly recommend Cisneros. If, like me, you prefer your reading to be fantastical, plot-driven literary escapism, then this isn’t the book for you.

American Families/ first 2 weeks (with notes)

I’m taking a class on the history of American Families right now, and I really enjoy it. I like this paper and once I finally got started, I had a great time writing it and I’m really proud of it, so figured I’d post it up. When classes are in session and I’m taking 20 credits a quarter, it’s difficult to find time to write non-school related stuff.

Over the last two weeks in class, we looked at the familial structures of European immigrants, African immigrants, and Native Americans in the 17th and 18th centuries. In doing so, we looked at the roles of community and religion within marriage and family relationships, as well as the transition over two centuries from marriages formed for familial duty to those ideally based in affection. This shift in priority is seen in several areas.

Something important to keep in mind is how completely foreign the worldview of the 17th century actually is to the modern mind. An example of particular interest from our reading recounted a community member who caught a neighbor in the act of adultery by spying through a knothole in their cabin. Imagine someone doing that today — the question of adultery would almost be lost in outrage over the violation of privacy. At the time, however, it was perfectly acceptable for neighbors to spy through window in order to regulate behavior in the community and even to tattle to the authorities about what they saw with no fear of recrimination. Today such behavior is seen as a creepy imposition into private affairs, not to mention a crime.

Entwined with this community involvement was the concept of sin, as it was one’s  godly and neighborly duty to prevent community members from falling into temptation. A lot of Christian theology is contradictory, and I when I learn things like how the conception of sin has changed over the centuries, the existence of such contradictions make a lot more sense. Consider a comparison and contrast of “sin” in the 17th and 19th centuries. In the 17th century, man (and woman) was considered tainted by Adam’s infamous transgression, born steeped in sin. The natural state of man was fallen, and life was an everlasting struggle to resist temptation. Even children were not perceived as innocents in need of guidance, but as sinners in need of discipline — and everyone is a child of God.

Such a view meant any sinful behavior was seen as man reverting to his normal, sinful state. It was a regrettable lapse, but not an indication of individual character. The sinner would be punished — perhaps fined or whipped or both — and then the incident would be forgotten. Even if the sinner was caught in similar acts, it still would not be seen as a reflection of their individual moral fiber — such a person could still hold positions of respect and authority within the community.

By the 18th century, the conception of “sin” was already making the transition to a personal moral failing, and acts of sin or righteousness were being interpreted as indicative of the individual’s personal character. By the 19th century, conceptions of sin and purity were entirely viewed through the lenses of the individual moral character.

The earlier view of sin fit into the community involvement of personal affairs mentioned earlier, because such a view of sin meant it was the duty of each community member to keep an eye on their fellow man and help prevent them from succumbing to temptation. Concurrent with the perception of sin as a personal moral failing was the rise in individuality and familial isolation from the larger community.

The rise of individuality is another fascinating aspect — sin and community were all bound together, but so was a sort of lack of individualism, at least as we understand it today. This is another mindset so unfamiliar to the modern lens that it is actually difficult to find the words to try to explain it. A good analogy might be to imagine that the world was seen as a giant mechanical clock, and God was seen as the clockmaker, while heaven was an orderly clock-making workshop. In the workshop, each tool and material is set in its place so that God may find them when he needs them and utilize them for their designated tasks. Mirroring the shop itself, the clock is crafted according to a design where each cog and gear play  specific roles. If anything moves out of place, the clocks will no longer work correctly. Each part has a specific role to play. A gear cannot be a cog, and a cog cannot be a chime. Likewise, a peasant cannot be a merchant, and a merchant cannot be a nobleman. That would upset God’s design for society, and the world as a whole.

So in the view of the Euro-colonial families we studied, an orderly society depended on God’s design, and man’s inherently sinful nature meant it was necessary for the community to monitor and report on behaviors that were damaging to the orderly organization of society. Marriages were arranged based on advancing the interests of the family as a whole, and performed with an eye first to duty, second to God and community, and last to the possibility of eventual affection.

The Euro-centric view was also based on wealth and land ownership, which ultimately undermined the aforementioned worldview. As land inheritances in the colonies were divided and subdivided among the surviving offspring, more people had to move off into urban centers make their way apart from their families. This facilitated the shift from a domestic economy to a market economy, and the minimalization of patriarchal enforcement of family duty through the promise or denial of inheritance.

As society transitioned from a culture based in community and domestic economy to a culture based on the capitalist market economy and the right of all men to equality and the pursuit of happiness, the value of love within marriage and family shifted. Love became a priority in marriage, and even a source of capital for women in terms of what value they brought to a marriage. The problem with love is that it is a pretty unstable emotion, and a stable family was a central social institution. It was necessary for a shift in values to occur in order to stabilize marriage and family against the threat of the love match. A gendered view arose, which cast men and women as complementary opposites who needed marriage to become wholly complete.

This attitude is similar to modern gender stereotypes and attitudes about love, but social attitudes still were not similar enough to modern attitudes for a time traveler to comfortably fit into a house party. If anything, these values were more extreme in the nascent 19th century phase than they are today. For example, the gender essentialism which stereotyped women as biologically designed to be the nurturing household center was accompanied by a shift in the moral worldview which cast women as asexual, pure beings. As a result, expressions of affection and expressions of sexual interest were considered pretty much completely separate. That, in turn, led to expressions of affection toward friends and children that would read as sexual to modern sensibilities, but were seen as completely appropriate in the context of a society that drew a sharp divide between sex and love. It also meant that men who truly loved their wives were in a difficult spot, because the expression of such love and respect meant both remaining monogamous and denying their sexual urges.

So if you have ever wondered why modern stereotypes hold women to be both passionately illogical and ice-cold prudes in complete control of their sexuality, it can be attributed to this contradiction in 17th and 19th century attitudes toward sin in general and women in particular. The 17th century attitude saw all humans as fallen, the community as responsible in preventing sin, and women as not exempt from temptation — women were actually seen as more prone to fall to temptation, due to their role in Adam’s transgression. This is where the trope of the emotional, passionate, illogical woman who is ruled by her desires can be traced to, and the beginnings of the idea that men have more control over undesirable emotions.

The 19th century attitude toward sin had shifted to an individualistic morality, in which the individual was responsible for resisting temptation and women were designed by God to be the moral locus of the home and society. In this trope, women were viewed as the gatekeepers of sexual behavior, and men were often seen as animalistic sexual beings ruled by their basest desires. This is where the stereotype of the prudish ice-queen, in full control of her sexual desires, comes from — and thus two contradicting stereotypes are born: Men as logical beings who cannot control their sexual desires, and women as illogical beings in complete control of their sexuality.

This shift came about in large part by the transition to a market economy in the 19th century. As the market economy replaced the domestic economy of the 17th century, the production role of women and the domestic role of men were de-emphasized within the household.  In the domestic economy household and income were intertwined — family was business, and business was family. In the market economy the household and business spheres were separated. This was directly tied to the increased emphasis on expectations of male production and the financial value of free “women’s work.” For the middle class family, it was more cost-efficient to support a housewife who would raise the children, sew the clothing, and cook the meals than it was to outsource that work to the tutors, nannies, and other servants hired by the upper crust of society.

The working family, of course, could not afford to hire servants or keep a housewife at home. Their labor was ensured by the growing wealth inequalities precipitated by the shift to a market economy. In the early 17th century, a Black or White indentured servant could potentially work their way to freedom and even landownership. By the 18th century, Black indentured servants had become slaves, and White indentured servants were apprentices or hired help who could expect to one day be  shopowners or homeowners themselves.

With the transition into the market economy of the 19th century, it actually became more difficult to improve one’s financial situation throughout a lifetime, as the need for the middle and upper class to maintain a hold on an exploitable working class solidified. Instead of working class children entering an apprenticeship and learning a trade, they accompanied their parents to the factory or coal mine and worked alongside their parents to contribute to the family income. This was necessary, because the working class laborer was paid less than a living wage, so it was common for all members of the household to contribute to the income in whatever way possible. The exploitation of working class families also perpetuated class divisions across generations, because the hard physical aspect of working class labor meant such an employee had a shorter working lifespan (about 30 years) before injury and illness took their toll. Therefore, it was necessary for working class families to have more children in order to support the family as the adults became too disabled to work.

Another interesting aspect of the lectures over the past two weeks is the role Euro-centric views on marriage played in both the Indigenous cultures and in African-American relationships. In terms of Black Americans, we studied the role colonial legislation played in creating the racialized institution of slavery and, by extension, our modern understandings of race. We saw that, contrary to popular opinion, there were free Black colonists, as well as Black indentured servants, and that Black and White colonists married one another. Over time, such marriages were punished through legislative acts, and the rights of Black Americans were eroded in other ways, as well. In particular, contracts for indentured service were extended into slavery and the legal status of a child was tied to their mother’s legal status, thus ensuring generational enslavement. Eventually, Black Americans (even free Blacks) had fewer rights than White Americans. According to Birth of a White Nation, some of the first gun control laws in the United States were racially motivated, preventing Black colonists from owning or using firearms.

Despite the fact that enslaved Black Americans were denied the ability to make legal marriage contracts and were always at risk of losing family members to the auction block, they formed kinship relationships that paralleled the cultural norms of the Euro-American colonists. In defiance of the interference of slave owners who forced their slaves into relationships for breeding purposes, or who split up families in order break their spirits, enslaved Americans still formed affectionate relationships. In fact, one of the readings specifically noted that the kinship bonds formed by Black Americans during the period of American slavery was one of the most effective tools at a Plantation owners disposal, because tearing apart families was more psychologically scarring than any whipping.

Even Native Americans eventually transitioned their attitudes and experiences of family and marriage to fit the Euro-centric colonizing notions. For example, the Iroquois were a matrilineal society when the colonists initially arrived, but their social and family interactions changed due to extended contact with the Europeans. Part of this was the effect of population decimation caused by plagues and war, and part of it was because Europeans preferred to negotiate with men. After several generations, the 18th century Iroquois prophet Handsome Lake advised his people to take on certain Euro-centric behaviors, such as having couples move into individual homes instead of a matriarch-guided communal lodge. By adopting these and similar familial roles, the Iroquois adapted into the conquering Euro-colonial mindset and survived the tribal genocide that erased many other indigenous Americans.

Across all these cultures, a similar theme prevailed where the domestic economies reliant on prioritizing strongly neighborly bonds gave way to market-style economies in which the needs of the individual families outweighed the community as a whole. Based on class status and ethnicity, this shift in how families were prioritized in relation to community might have been more or less pronounced, but the shift occurred to some extent across all racial and social classes. This economic transition was accompanied by a refocusing of family values to prioritize affection and love in marriage, as well as an adjustment in social attitudes which viewed sin and morality as the responsibility of the individual and their family, rather than the community as a whole.

Note: I have already turned this in, and it was returned with some minor editorial feedback in the body of the paper. I made changes from my original paper based on my professor’s remarks in the body of the paper. Her accompanying remark, which I consider high praise indeed (considering the source), said:




13 years

happy couple 2001

John and I were married thirteen years ago today. Some interesting facts about our engagement and wedding day:

The Proposal: In a nutshell, John and I met back when we were LDS. We started dating, and then started knocking boots, and for mormons that pretty much means get married or repent, stat. With the limited options being to get married and keep doing it, or stop doing it, we started talking marriage. We went and looked at rings and everything, but I was kind of freaking out a bit because I’ve always been sort of a commitment-phobe. I mean, I loved John — but I couldn’t help but wonder if I loved him, like til-death-do-us-part/ time-and-all-eternity “love.” I had the sinking suspicion that eternal life with anyone would get wearing after a while. So I kind of started lashing out, falling back into some bad habits and hanging around with friends who I knew John wouldn’t like.

For about two weeks, John and I went back and forth, talking marriage and looking at rings, and then fighting about me being distant and non-communicative and smelling of tobacco and pot. Then one day he tells me we need to talk, and we drove out to Tumwater Falls. The entire drive, he was very serious and stone-faced — later, he told me it was nerves, but at the time I didn’t realize that he was just preoccupied. I thought he was pissed, and as the silent drive continued with him not responding to any of my conversational ventures, I thought, “Oh my god, he’s breaking up with me. I’ve screwed up so bad.

I wanted to cry, I was so scared I’d lost the best boyfriend I’d ever had. We reached the Falls, and John parked the truck, got out, and made a beeline for the park. He usually opened my door for me, so that was weird, and I read it as another sign that he was breaking up with me. I hopped out of the truck and trotted after him — he realized that I was lagging behind and stopped to wait for me. As we walked toward the little brown wooden walking bridge, John started talking, saying something like, “These past few weeks we’ve been talking a lot about the future of our relationship.” It was worded in such a way that it honestly sounded neutral, and I really thought he was leading up to, “And I’ve realized we have different visions for the future, so I think we should break up.”

But instead he said, “So I was wondering …” and then he dropped to one knee and opened a ring box as he asked, “Will you marry me?”

And I yelled and hit him in the shoulder and said, “I thought you were breaking up with me! Yes, yes!”

The Gown: My mom was supposed to sew my wedding gown. It was an a-line, fitted-waist dress with a boatneck and a lace overlay. I was going to wear a Spanish veil. In the end, my mom was unable to complete the gown due to illness. I wore the pictured dress and headpiece, borrowed from my sister’s sister in law. The previous owner was much more ample in the bosom than I, so my mom and sister tried to stuff the bodice with toilet paper to make me look bustier. I tossed out the toilet paper, and John stared down my dress for most of the ceremony. 🙂

The Bouquet: John was working for a plant nursery at the time, and was given quite a deal on wholesale flowers. My mom didn’t initially realize the flowers would not arrive pre-arranged, and then when she did realize she just assumed that my extremely talented and creative fiance would take care of it. Somehow, she neglected to tell John or me about her expectations until the morning of the wedding, so that was a surprise. John (of course) rose to the challenge and crafted the beautiful bouquet I am holding in the picture, as well as the boutonnieres and corsages of the wedding party.

I’ve been joking all month that since John and I knew each other for about a year before we got married (yes, the whole frenemies to friendship to dating to engaged to married happened in the span of a year) that we should call this our 14th anniversary and skip “unlucky” 13 altogether. But the truth is, neither John nor I believe in that sort of superstitious bullshit, and I’m really proud at how far we’ve come together.

My husband and I have been married 13 years, and that’s pretty cool. I’m really happy to have such an amazing, creative, talented, driven, funny, and kind man in my life. He’s a wonderful husband and a great dad, and he strives to do his best to show his love for us each and every day. We’ve hit our bumps in the road, like any couple, and we will probably hit more bumps in the future — but I know we’ll hit them as a team, just like we always have.

Oh, and yes — it turns out I am in love-love with John, the for the rest of our lives/ til-death-do-us-part kind of love. The kind where if I believed in eternity, I’d be happy to have an eternity with John. We got pretty lucky!

I’m feeling tired and headachey and frustrated. I don’t think I’m getting enough sleep, with the new puppy and John’s schedule changes and taking 20 credits. My Saturday class starting at 9 am isn’t exactly helping this whole shebang.

I’m supposed to be working on a 3-4 page paper that summarizes the, “the main variations and changes in American family life from colonial times to the late 19th century, including some consideration of the patterns, causes or implications of the changes and paying attention to variations by class and race.” I’m not really sure where to start.

I mean, in class we’ve looked at the familial structures of European immigrants, African immigrants, and Native Americans in the 16th century. We’ve examined how colonial legislations were enacted to extend indentured servitude contracts and to require the children of black indentured women to also be subject to the contract, until this racialized system of working class control that we now know as slavery was created.

We’ve also looked at the role of community in the family, and how over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, marriage transitioned from a concept of community, familial, and godly duty to a partnership that would ideally be based in affection.

Like, when I say community/ familial/ godly, it’s almost foreign how completely different the mindset and attitude was. For example, it was totally cool for someone to spy into your house, into your bedroom even, and tattle on you if you were cheating on your spouse. Like absolutely no-one would respond to that situation by saying, “Uh, what were you doing looking into their house, you creepy peeping Tom?”

Instead, the eyewitness evidence would be entered into the record all bland and factual — “Mistress Jones did observe Prentice Smith with her hand inside Jonathan Miller’s codpiece, and did Jonathan Miller kiss Prentice Smith in her nether regions, though he knew her to be married,” type deal.

What’s even more fascinating is that back then, their concept of sin was completely different. It kind of related to how they fit into society as a whole — they had this whole concept that basically everything had a place ordained by god, and if you were born a peasant that sucked, but that was god’s role for you in the machinery that is life. And their concept of sin was basically that man was debased and sin was the default — that our earthly lives were striving to escape the muck of sin, so if you caught someone, say, masturbating in the churchyard (actual example in our books), it wasn’t necessarily a reflection of their character or failings as an individual — it was much more, “Well, what are you gonna do. We’re all debased beings here, amirite? Flog ’em and fine ’em.”

Then, after they repented/ paid their dues through the flogging and fining, it was done, and they were reintegrated back into society. In fact, the masturbating churchyard guy? According to primary documents of the time, he was caught sinning a few more times (same sex acts, an orgy, etc.), and he was fined and punished and whatnot … but he also became a city Alderman, which is a pretty respectable position.

Nowadays, of course, we see “sin” as a personal, individual moral failing — no politician today could jack off in the parking lot of a church and later have an orgy, then have those events become public record and still ascend to a respected public office.

And their concept of family was just … wow. I mean, nowdays if a parent doesn’t like the person their child is dating or married to, it’s like, well tough luck. But back then, if a parent didn’t approve of a potential suitor for their son or daughter, they could reject them. I guess the best way to illustrate it is Romeo & Juliet. In modern times, we read this play as a love story between two teens who were willing to give up everything to be together. Their families are read as hard-hearted and selfishly materialistic.

A more accurate 16th century reading of this play, apparently, would view the kids as selfish for putting their own desires above that which would benefit their family — and the priest is dangerously ungodly, a rogue element who undermines the community by undermining the family decrees.

It’s not until several generations later, approaching the Revolutionary War, that this colonial ideal of duty-based family-centric communities begins to be overtaken by a more modern shift toward affection-based nuclear families isolated from the community.

And it’s interesting, because the enslaved community held similar transitioning ideals — from a marriages of necessity to marriages based in affection — despite the fact that their owners had the ability to break apart their family at any point through the use of the auction block. In fact, one of our books says the affection and kinship ties formed by Black Americans during American slavery was one of the most effective tools at a Plantation owners disposal, because tearing apart families was more psychologically scarring than any whipping.

Even Native Americans eventually transitioned their attitudes and experiences of family and marriage to better fit the colonizing notions that prevailed and became normative. For instance, the Iroqious used to have a more matriarchal lineage, with female chiefs and the husband’s moving into the mother-in-law’s home, a practice they stopped several generations after Euro colonization in order to basically fit in better and not be completely annihiliated by these strangely murderous invaders.

Many tribes also had ideas like gender roles within the household/ community, but biological sex was not necessarily associated with those roles — for example, a woman could marry a man, and she would perform her typical gender role of keeping the house while the man performed his typical gender role of hunting. But the woman could also marry a woman, or a man a man, so long as they each performed one of the necessary gender roles for a household or community to run smoothly. It wasn’t so much about what the people did in the bedroom as it was how they interacted in the community — as long as the hunt was getting tracked/ killed by one spouse and skinned/ cooked by the other, nobody really cared what the biological sex of the parties involved or their bedroom activities were.

It’s fascinating and awesome, but I just don’t know where to begin the paper. And I don’t know when/ how to write it, with all the scheduling changes and someone always being home. Just now, when I was writing that bit up there (which I’ll probably cut and paste into Word and expand into my paper) I got distracted by our dog Sirius blowing up at our cat Dmitri and knocking over the baby gate, and then all four cats running in here with the puppy on their tails, followed by Kidling running in to try and capture his puppy.

And ever since that happened, one of the cats (I can’t tell which one) has been yowling sadly outside my door, but when I went to open the door and let the noisy little fucker in, whichever one it is ran off. Is it Dmitri? Is he injured? Don’t know. Can’t find him. Is it Eragon or Flufflepuff, howling for their trapped brother? Arwen, wanting to come in and cuddle? I can’t tell. And now it’s Kidling’s bedtime, and John will be home soon.