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The Protest Psychosis

Bijan C. Bayne | 3/16/2010, 9:18 a.m.

In his latest book, author Jonathan M. Metzl explores how black anger became diagnosed as schizophrenia

“The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease,” Jonathan M. Metzl, Beacon, 288 pp., $24.95.

After Cassius Clay famously performed during the weigh-in for his first championship bout with Sonny Liston in 1964, fight physicians thought the brash 22-year-old really was crazy.

 An 8-to-1 underdog, Clay repeatedly called Liston a “bear” and “ugly” and boasted about how he deserved to be world champion because he was “pretty” and “faster” and “better.” It was more than just talk. According to one observer, Clay looked “like he was having a seizure…all gathered up in his own hysteria, totally out of control.”

Though Clay would later say he was using “psychological warfare” to rattle one of boxing’s most feared intimidators, the boxing commission’s doctor had a completely different diagnosis.

For starters, Dr. Alexander Robbins explained at the time, Clay’s blood pressure had skyrocketed shortly after the weigh-in from a normal rate of 54 beats per minute to 110, more than twice his norm. And this was after the actual weigh-in scene. Robbins further announced that Clay was “emotionally unbalanced, scared to death, and liable to crack up before he enters the ring.”

Of course, Dr. Robbins’ diagnosis was dead wrong: Clay went on to shock the world and defeated Liston when he refused to answer the bell after the sixth round. Clay said he knew what he doing the whole time. He told the media that his histrionics were contrived to frighten Liston — much like a crazy man could scare a bully.

For decades, black people, particularly men, have resorted to a facade of mental illness to dupe oppressors, avoid military service — and in Clay’s case, psyche-out a competitor. But the role of acting “crazy,” long-considered to be a survival tool for those at the social and economic bottom, was used to further demonize African American males.

In “The Protest Psychosis,” Jonathan M. Metzl, a University of Michigan psychiatry and women’s studies professor, argues that American society — and mental health institutions in particular — disproportionately offered schizophrenia as a diagnosis on politicized and outspoken black males during the turbulent 1960s.

Metzl explores the changing demographics and diagnoses of the Ionia State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Ionia, Mich. Before 1955, the average annual population consisted of 122 whites and 17 Negroes. By the late 1960s, the population was about 60 percent black. By 1977, the former asylum had become Riverside Correctional Facility — a prison.

Derived from the Greek words for “split” and “mind,” schizophrenia has been long associated with aggressiveness, projection and violent tendencies. Metzl retraces Western European and American distinctions in this type of mental disorder, starting with the work of Paul Eugen Bleuler, the Swiss psychiatrist who coined “schizophrenia” as a diagnosis.

Metzl also examines what became the industry standard, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders (DSM-II). Published in 1968 by the American Psychiatric Association, the 134-page manual listed 182 mental health disorders and was widely used throughout the industry.