Dr. Diana Martha Louis’ research pursues the intersections of Disability Studies and Critical Race Studies with respect to issues of mental illness in African American life. Her current project, The Colored Insane: Slavery, Asylums and Mental Illness in 19th-Century America examines the impact of major transformations in both American psychiatry and African Americans’ social condition — the end of one of America’s prototypical institutions of confinement and the expansion of another, slavery and asylums, respectively. It tells the story of how nineteenth-century psychiatric discourses made African Americans mad by both constructing disorders according to prevailing notions of race and insanity, and inflicting real psychological harm within asylums, plantations, jails, and society writ large. Further, it shows how Black intellectual thought on mental illness, or African American “anti-slavery psychiatry (ASP),” challenged reigning psychiatric beliefs. The Colored Insane reveals that multilayered, ubiquitous and ongoing experiences of insanity (real and imagined) among 19th-century African Americans set the stage for black experiences with mental illness for generations to come.
Dr. Louis is beginning a second project that explores mental illness and psychiatry among blacks at nineteenth-century asylums in other parts of the African Diaspora including Black Rock Hospital in Barbados, West Indies and Lutindi Hospital in Tanzania, East Africa.