In Under the Strain of Color, Gabriel N. Mendes recaptures the history of a largely forgotten New York City institution that embodied new ways of thinking about mental health, race, and the substance of citizenship. Harlem’s Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic was founded in 1946 as both a practical response to the need for low-cost psychotherapy and counseling for black residents (many of whom were recent migrants to the city) and a model for nationwide efforts to address racial disparities in the provision of mental health care in the United States.
The result of a collaboration among the psychiatrist and social critic Dr. Fredric Wertham, the writer Richard Wright, and the clergyman Rev. Shelton Hale Bishop, the clinic emerged in the context of a widespread American concern with the mental health of its citizens. It proved to be more radical than any other contemporary therapeutic institution, however, by incorporating the psychosocial significance of antiblack racism and class oppression into its approach to diagnosis and therapy. Mendes shows the Lafargue Clinic to have been simultaneously a scientific and political gambit, challenging both a racist mental health care system and supposedly color-blind psychiatrists who failed to consider the consequences of oppression in their assessment and treatment of African American patients. Employing the methods of oral history, archival research, textual analysis, and critical race philosophy, Under the Strain of Color contributes to a growing body of scholarship that highlights the interlocking relationships among biomedicine, institutional racism, structural violence, and community health activism.
Introduction: "Under the Strain of Color"1. "This Burden of Consciousness": Richard Wright and the Psychology of Race Relations, 1927–19472. "Intangible Difficulties": Dr. Fredric Wertham and the Politics of Psychiatry in the Interwar Years3. "Between the Sewer and the Church": The Emergence of the Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic4. Children and the Violence of Racism: The Lafargue Clinic, Comic Books, and the Case against School SegregationEpilogue: "An Experiment in the Social Basis of Psychotherapy"Notes
"Anyone who has thought about the history of postwar American liberalism, race, social medicine, and psychiatry probably has wished for the existence of more scholarly treatment of this important subject and will be exhilarated to read Under the Strain of Color. The insights provided by Gabriel N. Mendes will generate many fruitful discussions and inquiries for years to come."
Samuel Kelton Roberts, Jr., Columbia University, author of Infectious Fear: Politics, Disease, and the Health Effects of Segregation
"In this highly original and insightful work, Gabriel N. Mendes unearths the little-known history of the Lafargue Clinic, a community healing space where black Harlemites sought refuge from mental illness and otherwise callous psychiatric care in the mid-twentieth century. Drawing on an impressive array of sources, Mendes creatively harnesses biography to show how the social realism of renowned author Richard Wright extended to his founding role in this clinic that linked African Americans' Jim Crow social realities to the politics of mental health. This study reminds us that the now accepted idea that stressors like racism and poverty tax the mind, body and spirit was proposed by a daring, interracial group of physicians, clergy, artists and others more than sixty years ago. Under the Strain of Color offers deep and nuanced historical perspective on today's racial health disparities."
Alondra Nelson, Dean of Social Science, Columbia University, author of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination
"I started reading Under the Strain of Color and could not put the book down—practically every page contains some remarkable find, deep insight, or startling idea. At its core, this beautifully written and clearly argued book tells the definitive history of a mid-twentieth-century treatment center, the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem, that provided psychiatric care to those who had been previously excluded from it. But as Under the Strain of Color unfolds, it becomes much more. In Gabriel Mendes's hands, the story of the clinic morphs into a much larger object lesson about community, common cause, and the relationships between race relations, mass culture, and the mental and cultural health of the American citizenry at midcentury. Along the way, the book addresses many central questions about racial justice, mental health, and the ways that normative models of the mind produce both liberatory and oppressive capabilities. I am quite certain that Under the Strain of Color will make a vital impact across a number of fields and will be required reading for years to come."
Jonathan Metzl, MD, PhD, Frederick B. Rentschler II Professor of Sociology and Medicine, Health and Society; Director, Center for Medicine, Health and Society; and Professor of Psychiatry, Vanderbilt University, author of The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease
"This is a brilliant and pioneering work of scholarship that highlights an overlooked reality in Black America—the pervasive need for institutions dedicated to addressing Black Mental Health."
Dr. Cornel West, Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice, Union Theological Seminary
"Under the Strain of Color is a much-needed addition to the historiography of race and psychiatry in the USA. This is the only book-length treatment of the history of the Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic, the first outpatient psychiatric clinic to serve the most iconic of African American communities: New York's Harlem. Under the Strain of Color comprehensively addresses two of the less-well understood aspects of the fascinating Lafargue Clinic story: its origin and its contribution to the civil rights movement. In doing so, Mendes has artfully crafted what should become the standard account of this remarkable, short-lived, Cold War–era medical institution. A slim volume that is jargon-free and as entertaining as a novel, I can see it wideningthe audience for both medical humanities and the history of psychiatry."
History of Psychiatry
"Wertham's work at Lafargue led to his pronouncement that 'racism was not exclusively a social and political problem but represented a community health problem.' This well-researched, easy to read text is compelling, providing a comprehensible overview of the relationship between racism and the psychiatric profession in the midcentury US."
"Professor Mendes' narrative has serious contemporary analogues. It is a cautonary tale about how and why minority communities fail to gain assistance for their needs asthey define them... One comes away from this book feeling admiration for the efforts of all those who both brought the Lafargue Clinic into being and sustained it through its 12 years of active service. If we are wise, we will learn from their example."
Curits W. Hart
J Relig Health
"Under the Strain of Color is a significant contribution to the study of antiracism in the human sciences and a compelling counterpoint to the historiography of the "psy" disciplines after WWII... Mendes' illuminating study of the neglected Lafargue clinic effectively points to more radical alternatives from this period... Mendes' book offers a convincing case for the rewards of studying the history of human science from the margins."
Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences
"[An] admirable contribution to the history of American health, revealing how the intersecting efforts of activists, practitioners, and cultural figures helped make New York City's health institutions more responsive to diverse patient groups in the face of political inertia and social resistance."
American Historical Review