A Natural History: Krista Franklin03/02/2010
A Natural History of My Drapetomania
Text and Art by Krista Franklin
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In 1851 Lousiana physician Samuel A. Cartwright introduced America to a theory that he thought would serve to explain the aberrant behavior of black slaves “absconding from service.” He called the “disease” of those who sought to flee captivity drapetomania and outlined the symptoms and treatments in his essay “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race.” Dr. Cartwright suggested reinforcing the subservience of the black slave to his white slaveholder to treat the disease. He prescribed treating the black slave like a child and by delivering sound beatings only in the cases of those persistently afflicted slaves as the cure for this pesky mental ailment—the desire to be free.
Nearly 130 years after Cartwright kicked the bucket, a cracking, black and white photograph of my 18-month-old mother falls under my gaze. The picture, small and curling at its white-bordered corners, shows the back of my tiny mother barely walking, moving away from the camera, the hem of her baby dress haphazardly tucked into the top of her diaper. One foot hovers precariously off the ground; she is in the throes of movement.
“This is the day she ran away from home,” my grandmother says, giggling at her first daughter’s blossoming desire to escape.
* * *
Not nearly as advanced as my predecessor, around eleven I begin to push my body against the neighborhood’s borders, roaming into woods along paths past thickets. Even as fear rides piggyback and my nostrils flare like a deer’s at the scent of the unknown, I press on across fallen leaves; errant branches scrape my arms, a phantom sound, someone behind me. I spend minutes like I spend money, squatting at the creek’s edge watching minnows swirl each other in their watery dance. When I go home, my Zips are caked in mud. I smell like grass.
Around this time, at a church picnic the pastor asks me to get her nephew, who is also my age, a hot dog from a nearby table. I tell her “I’m not in the service.”
This is a story that my grandmother also relishes.
* * *
The radio is a bad influence, lures me further away, summons me to Salem Mall, through its heavy glass doors to feast on the hallucinogen of consumerism. Here garments beckon me to try on, be transformed, but Camelot Records spins a sticky web, offers a hundred shrink-wrapped escape plans begging to be bagged. I leave sweaty-palmed with something to take home, my allowance pick-pocketed by the record industry.
When the needle drops, I’m drawn outside myself. My scalp tingles. The sounds spin revolving doors I walk through in my mind.
Like the countless Negroes who used their skin as their disguise, passing as white to spin the yarn of a life, I master the art of a malleable identity. Music is one of the places I learn: 1) how to speak like a white girl from the Valley, 2) how to walk like an Egyptian, 3) how to be, when the occasion calls for it, off the wall. I try on identities like jeans.
By the time I’m thirteen I spend approximately 65% of my waking life putting on “whiteness,” because in some crude, unarticulated way, in my mind “whiteness” is equivalent to “freedom.”
It’s been said that the human brain hasn’t reached its full development until a person is in her mid-twenties. Whether this has anything to do with me eventually relinquishing that ridiculous arithmetic around that age is unknown to me.
* * *
Once during my adolescence my mother told me, “Children are like tiny anchors,” and asked me through a series of elaborate questions, did I like being free?
* * *
At the university I practice late-night-slip-outs like I should be memorizing lines from textbooks to pass tests. Side roads and alleys become familiar. I visit unfamiliar bars, hide out in the movie theater, hop in my car and skip town. For one week straight I forget that I’m enrolled and spend days in my pajamas watching television, reading books I checked out from the campus library, and refusing to answer the phone. Classes are an afterthought.
* * *
The last time I held a full-time job I had to be prescribed anti-depressants.
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As a child I used to have a recurring dream where I was running across the freakishly deserted, green campus of my elementary school being chased by a man whose face I can never see. Once he almost caught me, but I woke up.
* * *
Krista Franklin toils in Chicago, rubbing her hands fiendishly plotting her next great escape.
“A Natural History of My Drapetomania” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>
The collage “Wanderlust Wonderland” first appeared in the MiPoesias.com issue guest edited by Evie Shockley.