Under the Strain of Color
Harlem's Lafargue Clinic and the Promise of an Antiracist Psychiatry
Cornell University Press 2015
New Books in African American StudiesNew Books in American StudiesNew Books in MedicineNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in PsychoanalysisNew Books in Science & TechnologyNew Books in Science, Technology, and Society June 15, 2016 Mikey McGovern
In his 1948 essay, “Harlem is Nowhere,” Ralph Ellison decried the psychological disparity between formal equality and discrimination faced by Blacks after the Great Migration as leaving “even the most balanced Negro open to anxiety.” In Under the Strain of Color: Harlem’s Lafargue Clinic and the Promise of an Antiracist Psychiatry (Cornell University Press, 2015), Gabriel Mendes undertakes an engaging study of race and mental health in the 20th century through the lens of an overlooked Harlem clinic.
While providing the first in-depth history of the Lafargue Clinic (1946-58), the book focuses on the figures who came together in a seemingly unlikely union to found it: Richard Wright, the prominent author; Fredric Wertham, a German Jewish emigre psychiatrist now known for his advocacy for censorship of comic books; and The Reverend Shelton Hale Bishop, an important Harlem pastor. Wright’s literary prowess, work for the Communist party, and brush with Chicago School sociology met with Wertham’s socially-conscious and uncompromising brand of psychoanalysis to challenge mainstream psychiatric theory and its discriminatory practices in the Jim Crow North. Those who could afford it were charged 25 cents for sessions in the basement of St. Philip’s Episcopal church in Harlem, and 50 cents for court testimonials. A thoroughgoing grassroots effort, ignored by philanthropists and state funding, the Lafargue Clinic throws mid-20th Century mental health and race relations into relief, and is sure to stir interest in the untold stories of projects like it.