Slums, race and mental health in New York (1938–1965)

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Palgrave Communications


Claude Brown’s seminal 1965 memoir “Manchild in the Promised Land” appeared when Americans were trying to make sense of the Watts Rebellion of 1965. A “bildungsroman”, Brown’s autobiography details how he, a former juvenile delinquent and residential treatment center client, became a stable adult once he left his troubled Harlem neighborhood. This paper argues that Brown’s book revealed just how much liberal mid-twentieth century efforts to combat poverty and crime in segregated black communities by offering more mental health services struggled to fully grasp and address the relationship between mental health and environment. Between 1938 and 1965, officials and mental health experts with the Wiltwyck School for Boys, New York Domestic Relations Court and the New York Bureau of Child Guidance imagined that Harlem would become a more stable, law-abiding community if populated with emotionally healthier people. Methodologically, this paper compares the archival record of those programs’ goals with Brown’s memoir. Brown’s own experience as both a former charge of those institutions and a resident of Harlem led him to doubt that urban ghettoes were environmentally suited to support individuals struggling to overcome mental illness. In locating Brown’s recollection of his postwar youth within the context of local efforts to provide New York City’s black juvenile delinquents with psychiatric care in the postwar era, it becomes apparent that those liberal policies and programs were designed to produce therapeutic outcomes that proved difficult to sustain amid the challenging circumstances residents faced in socioeconomically depressed communities. As an intervention into the burgeoning literature on the US history of race and psychiatry, this research represents one of the first attempts to compare the intentions of mental health professionals seeking to improve the health care of African Americans and the perspectives of their African American clients.



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