This article calls for literary studies and the humanities to critically engage with the emerging subfield of Mad Studies. Developing alongside anti-psychiatry activism and Disability Studies, Mad Studies critiques how mentally and emotionally disabled individuals evidence the breadth of state violence and discrimination. After tracing a genealogy of Mad Studies, the article offers a model of a Mad literary studies approach by analyzing Shadrack from Toni Morrison's Sula (1973) as a complex figure which resists flattened readings of Black madness. The novel's scholarly history, while rich in Disability Studies readings, makes evident persistent societal neglect of distressed characters—especially distressed characters of color—as peripheral or symbolic. This article pulls from critical race theory, Disability Studies, and trauma studies to form an intersectional inquiry into the material and lived conditions of mad individuals of color. In so doing, the article demonstrates the significant possibilities of this developing interdisciplinary methodology.
In December 2017, as political tensions surrounding the Trump administration intensified, New York Times writers Gail Collins and Bret Stephens asked readers, "Is Trump Crazy like a Fox or Plain Old Crazy?" Their ostensibly tongue-in-cheek title spoke to ongoing public and legislative discussion about the president's mental and emotional abilities, a question, too, that many answered. The title of Michelle Goldberg's December op-ed column declared, "Trump Is Cracking Up" (2017). The New Republic's Steven Beutler offered his readers "A Medical Theory of Donald Trump's Bizarre Behavior" (2017). Meanwhile, Washington Post opinion writer Dana Milbank told readers, "President Trump actually is making us crazy" (2017). The pathologization of the president came less than two years after media uproariously criticized the same man for verbally and gesturally mocking reporter Serge F. Kovaleski, who is a disabled individual. Public reaction to the recorded video clip of Trump's depiction of Kovaleski on the campaign trail considered Trump's choice a "gaffe" (Graham 2015), his "worst offense" (Carmon 2016), and a sign that the then-candidate "looked like he was done for" (Taylor 2016). The sharp hypocrisy between anger at mocking disabled individuals and ongoing sarcastic jokes about mental or emotional disabilities speaks to an issue that extends beyond political writers to academics: we still do not know how to talk about mental and emotional disability.
As fields, literary and cultural studies have done much work to further Disability Studies's critiques, yet our critical engagement with mental and emotional disability in literature and academia more broadly has been less thorough. Recent scholarship, such as the work of Therí A. Pickens (2017a; 2017b) and Margaret Price et al. (2017), affirms the need to critically reconsider how the humanities discuss, theorize, and validate distress and madness. Scholarship invested in race and disability, especially, including recent formative work on Black Disability Studies by Pickens and others, are foundational to conversations about madness in and within the humanities. As Pickens writes, "The discourse of ability lurks as an undercurrent within the academy, sometimes creating a riptide between the turbulent waters of superior thinking and the threat of madness" (2017b, 243). Pickens speaks to the ways in which scholars who are able to, as she says, "safely embrace their 'crazy'" (243), do so only within networks of support that regularly exclude people of color, LGBTQ individuals, women, and physically disabled individuals. Concurring with Pickens, I argue that the humanities must "embrace the crazy" within academic and public forums. In so doing, I call for a Mad humanities that centralizes literature and cultural studies within "real" experience. In this article, I review influential scholarship guiding this inquiry and sketch a framework for initial analyses. I then apply this framing of a Mad literary studies approach to Morrison's Sula, calling attention as I do so to how such a reading offers new insight and builds upon existing formative scholarship on the ostensibly peripheral character of Shadrack and the text overall.
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A still developing subfield, Mad Studies calls attention to the social, medical, and legal systems through which mental "illness" is constructed and stigmatized. Writing for the Mad Studies Network site, Lucy Costa defines Mad Studies as "an area of education, scholarship, and analysis about the experiences, history, culture, political organising [sic], narratives, writings and most importantly, the PEOPLE who identify as: Mad; psychiatric survivors; consumers; service users; mentally ill; patients, neuro-diverse; inmates; disabled—to name a few of the 'identity labels' our community may choose to use." In their introduction to the significant 2013 text Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies, Robert Menzies, Brenda A. LeFrançois, and Geoffrey Reaume elaborate upon this, articulating Mad Studies as
incorporat[ing] all that is critical of psychiatry from a radical socially progressive foundation in which the medical model is dispensed with as biologically reductionist whilst alternative forms of helping people experiencing mental anguish are based on humanitarian, holistic perspectives where people are not reduced to symptoms but understood within the social and economic context of the society in which they live. (2013, 2)
As these conceptualizations make clear, Mad Studies is inchoate and amorphous, and there are as yet no stable or universally agreed upon boundaries of its interests or the tenets of its methodology, nor of its location based in activism, academe, anti-psychiatry, or other forums. It is inherently interdisciplinary as both a field and a framework.
At its broadest, Mad Studies refers to a methodological focus on cultural constructions of distress or mental disability, as well as the archival resurrection or support of work by scholars who identify as any of the varying terms under the "mad" umbrella: distressed; disabled; mad-identified (Reville 2013, 170); consumer, survivors, and/or ex-patients of the psychiatric system (c/s/x) (Price 2011, 10; Burstow 2013, 87); or, the less often reclaimed, "mentally ill" (LeFrançois, Menzies, and Reaume 2013, 5). 1
Notably, while some of these monikers gesture toward the pathologization of distress and mental disability, several reject medicalized terms that characterize the speaker or subject as "afflicted with" or "victim to" diagnoses like post-traumatic stress disorder. 2 Instead, these labels privilege subjective experience and acknowledge resistantly how the subject has been positioned within a psychologized system. Thus, while "distressed" and "disabled" may speak to the social constructionist model of Disability Studies, c/s/x and mad-identified already presage the dialogue between the subject and the biomedicalized model of disability, in which the speaker's identity or status is defined by another. In this way, the mad individual dismisses a hierarchy of knowledges in which biomedical research speaks for or over lived experiential knowledge. This tense distrust of clinical language and models may be one reason for the potential to cultivate Mad Studies scholarship outside of the medical humanities.
Such self-naming seeks to recast the long history of symbolic, often negative, interpretation of distressed or disabled people, including that of the critic, the sage, and the criminal (Foucault 2006, xvi; 109). Madness continues to accumulate different meanings across time, but it oscillates between what Michel Foucault calls "[t]his double movement of liberation and enslavement [which] forms the secret foundations of all that makes up the modern experience of madness" (460). This restriction of agency and the supposition that madness is defined and siloed rather than experienced drives many mad-identified and -allied scholar-activists to appropriate madness for self-identification as well as challenge the various relationships (e.g., doctor/patient, state/ward, public/"mentally ill") that resign the mad-identified to a position of subordination (Price 2011, 11; Beresford 2000, 169). These challenges triangulate a common issue of seeing madness as biologically "Other," inherently negative and deviant, often further compounded by additional systems of oppression. Summarizing mad activist Anne Plumb's formulation of madness, Peter Beresford writes, "the definition/diagnosis of survivors is associated with dissent and the perception of their behaviours [sic] and perceptions as deviant" (170). That is, madness and distress historically have been considered by some as malevolently purposeful rather than biological or even socially constructed, such that to experience distress always already opposes social order.
Resisting this paradigm of sanist superiority, mad scholars and activists foment alternative intersectional conversations of madness. These discussions cull from methodologies of Disability and trauma studies, while attending to the unique ways that madness has been and continues to be viewed and legislated. Yet, because of its specific histories, studies of madness do not neatly fit within the frameworks of either of these methodologies. Arguably, trauma studies utilizes a biomedical or psychologized framing of distress, understandably given its emergence out of psychoanalysis (Berger 2004, 564). Although such an approach identifies and, in some ways, seeks to rationalize or "explain" traumatic symptoms, it often does not explore the way lived experience and social systems influence one another aside from causing such distress. While some scholar-activists see Mad Studies as embedded within Disability Studies, some recent work argues that the movements are adjacent and interrelated rather than equivalent. This untethering of Mad Studies from Disability Studies—and their equivalent activist movements—arises out of the differing embodied experiences of mentally distressed and physically disabled persons, 3 as well as disagreement and discomfort surrounding the use of the term "impairment" and the disability/impairment binary (McWade, Milton, and Beresford 2015, 306; Beresford 2000, 168). While the social model of disability regards society as defining impairment (embodied experience) in terms of disability (relation to access), this binary is complicated by the differing experiences of mental and emotional disability or distress, prevailing stigmas about the same, as well as medical and social interpretation of these experiences.
Definitions of impairment within Mad Studies scholarship are fluid and varied but unite in their investment in discussions of subjective experiences, such as pain, confusion, and suffering. In their works on depression, Anna Mollow and Ann Cvetkovich argue that acknowledging and analyzing "suffering" is a necessary part of scholarship (Mollow 2006, 87; Cvetkovich and Wilkerson 2016, 502). Alison Kafer locates such an opportunity to rethink impairment in terms of access in the ongoing conversation in higher education regarding trigger warnings, which she theorizes as "opening[s] that acknowledge trauma and its effects" (2016, 18). Kafer writes that trigger warnings at their worst can function as censors for important practical and theoretical discussions of systemic oppression; at their best, frank conversations about "triggers" encourage us to consider how we interact with ideas and people (12, 15). The debate centers on how we "deal with" trauma as an active impairment that potentially can be mitigated. Kafer's analysis of the avoidance of trauma within higher education analogizes concurrent discussions of pain and debility in Disability Studies by Alyson Patsavas (2014) and Jasbir Puar (2017), among others. As the permeable borders of these fields shift and expand, what it means to be mad-identified or to interpret distressed experiences must always return to the individual, since agreement with medical, psychological, and social models fluctuates among these scholars. To employ a Mad Studies framework at this early stage of the subfield thus demands that scholars treat all models with circumspection.
Recent scholarship interpreting the intersectional relationship between madness and other positionalities demonstrates the potential of Mad Studies as a methodological frame. These include work on madness in higher education, such as Price's Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life (2011), as well as madness in gender and sexuality studies, including what Mollow (2013) calls "Mad Feminism" and Cvetkovich's work on queer affect and depression (2012). Significant research querying mental and emotional disabilities has come from scholars in critical race theory and cultural studies, especially within the field of Black Disability Studies. Important texts such as Nirmala Erevelles' Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Enabling a Transformative Body Politic (2011) and Sami Schalk's Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women's Speculative Fiction (2018) consider how, in the words of Erevelles and Michael Gill, "race and disability are not oppositional categories but are instead categories of difference that are mutually constitutive of each other" (2017, 125). Mining this intersection of race and disability, scholars such as Pickens and Erevelles look at the political, social, and cultural implications of disability and race upon each other. Erevelles' work explores how the material conditions of disability and race inform each other, making possible treatments, education, labor choices, and, to some extent, recognition of the self in the neoliberal capitalist society (2011, 16-17). Pickens attends to a rhizomatic history and development of Black Disability Studies in her crucial introduction to the 2017 special issue of African American Review. Pickens collates a non-exhaustive list of disciplines and fields from which critical work on race and disability emerge, including Black feminist literature, trauma studies, critical prison or carceral studies, and cultural studies (2017a, 95). In retracing the importance of foundational work, including Christopher M. Bell's "Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal" (2011), Pickens is emphatic that such genealogies obscure what "are and should be very messy" (2017a, 95) histories. She echoes others' calls to resist narratives of resolution and to engage, instead, the complex overlay of systems which "allow this tension to rest uneasily at the surface" (97). Importantly, then, these writers conceive of distress and disability as social constructions, within larger ecologies of embodied existence including dynamics of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. As Black Disability Studies scholars like Pickens have insisted, the multiplicity of these models investigating the networks through which mad individuals identify themselves or are interpellated highlights tensions and possibilities worth further exploration.
Significantly, such Mad Studies approaches extend analysis to how material conditions affect madness and influence lived experience and care. These discussions of material conditions attest to the complex heterogeneous relationships that scholars and activists in Mad Studies have with the medical field and industry. While there is relative unanimity against biomedicalized definitions and restrictions of experience, the Mad community is not centered around rejecting medical care all together. This is evident in the differing terminology and approaches of scholars analyzing madness, whose adherence to a pathologization of madness or mental disability depends on the aims of the project. 4 Mollow (2006) writes that intersectional analyses of mental or emotional disability and distress are both social and political. She argues that literary studies of depression must be informed by lived experience, social constructions, and the interstices that define relationships to medical care (including access, affordability, and racialized medicalization). In many cases, Erevelles notes, "it is the lack of access to economic resources and, consequently, to health care that also contributes to the creation and proliferation of disability" (2011, 17). Picking up Erevelles' argument in the first year of the Trump administration, Puar posits that, as the Republican-majority U.S. government lobbies for more restrictive health care options, "access to health care may well become the defining factor in one's relationship to the non-disabled/disabled dichotomy" (2017, xvi). Indeed, as Tanja Aho, Liat Ben-Moshe, and Leon J. Hilton write in their discussion of American Quarterly's 2017 "Mad Futures" forum, "the impetus to police, surveil, imprison, control, and normalize bodyminds is always bound up with ableist and sanist forms of erasure and death" (299). Investigating these intersecting and overlapping means of legislating and (in)validating experience is imperative for the continuation of literary studies, academe, and the real lives of mad-identified individuals everywhere.
These diverse readings offer a preliminary sketch of a Mad Studies methodology. Like Disability Studies, Mad Studies queries the epistemology and impact of language used to describe people and experiences. Also in the vein of Disability Studies, Mad Studies pushes back against social constructions of mental and emotional "health" and "illness" which effectively restrict who participates in various activities, events, and careers. 5 Mad Studies, however, more directly problematizes the way that social constructions of disability and distress animate discussions about the impairment/disability paradigm in Disability Studies. This focus on the theoretical and practical experiences of debility, pain, and suffering directly invoke the material conditions that can generate and/or legislate distress—and therefore which individuals are more likely to be consigned to various roles along a "mad" spectrum, from violent to quirky. Consequently, Mad humanities scholarship attends to the following:
- Embodiment—including "visible" and "invisible" mental, affective, and physiological experiences;
- Intersectional social interpretations of madness as applied to characteristics and behavior indexed by race, gender, citizenship, sexuality, and other catalogs of oppression; as well as
- The various institutional systems which (de)legitimize mad living, e.g., citizenship, education, law, medicine, and psychology.
Inherently, then, Mad Studies is a radical approach which affirms the humanity of diverse mad-identified individuals while calling out (and working against) the sanist and ableist rhetorics that intersect with and implicate other systems of oppression.
In the subsequent sections, I model a Mad literary studies approach by examining the character Shadrack from Toni Morrison's Sula. The novel tracks Sula and her close friend Nel in the Bottom, the close-knit part of Medallion in which the Black community lives, entering into their lives briefly, with chapters labeled for their corresponding year in time. Nel and Sula encounter racist violence, early romance, and deadly accidents together, their friendship acting as a sort of refuge from each other's families. Sula leaves town after Nel marries her husband, Jude, and upon her return, she refuses to fit into any category, embracing her free will and sexuality in the face of town gossip. Her friendship with Nel ends when Sula and Jude have sex, but years later when Sula is ill and dying, Nel tries to care for her. After Sula dies, the townspeople rejoice in the death of their pariah, joining another town outsider, Shadrack, on his annual National Suicide Day parade, during which many end up drowning.
Described as "[b]lasted and permanently astonished," "ravaged" (1973, 7), and "crazy" (15), Shadrack traditionally has been regarded as a peripheral character, significant primarily as metaphor or symbol. However, the character's function in opening and closing the plot as well as the novel's unique dual portrayal of Shadrack's mental distress through his own experiences and the opinions of others encourage further interrogation of how the text and its readers characterize mental distress. In what follows, I walk the reader through a Mad literary studies approach, attending to Morrison's introduction to Shadrack and signaling what types of scholarship and material conditions could support a more thorough exploration of his role. After this, I use this prefatory sketch to further examine the material conditions of his madness that influence the character, Morrison's conception of him, and the text's reception history. Mad Studies's goals of generating alternate readings of what it means to live with distress or "madness" beg reinterpretation of novels like Sula whose extant scholarship has focused primarily on physical disability rather than mental or emotional experience. Because of the significance of Morrison's Sula within literary Disability Studies—especially through the character of Eva Peace—rereading the novel through the lens of Mad Studies with specific focus on Shadrack presents a unique opportunity to consider the relationship between these closely related fields.
Approaching Sula through Mad Studies
Morrison's 1973 novel follows Sula, her grandmother Eva, and other inhabitants of the Bottom in chronological segments from 1919 to 1965. Eva has been widely interpreted through a Disability Studies's lens, most notably in Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's Extraordinary Bodies (1997), but also across various works which expand upon and counter Garland-Thomson's arguments. Garland-Thomson writes that Eva's amputation of her own leg for money to provide for her children "is an act of self-production that at once resists domination and witnesses oppression's virulence" (1997, 116). That is, Eva's disability evidences her own resourcefulness and strength at the same time as it testifies to the physical effects of white oppression. Garland-Thomson reads Eva's self-amputation as both generative and metaphorical, and this interpretation of Eva is by many measures accurate. Her amputated missing lower leg seems to make the remaining foot, consistently adorned and cared for, that much more beautiful (Morrison 1973, 41). Indeed, while Eva's disability perhaps inhibits her chances of saving her daughter Hannah from burning to death, her body asserts its own power throughout the novel. Morrison writes that even though "adults, standing or sitting, had to look down at her […] they didn't know it. They all had the impression that they were looking up at her" (31). This reaction may be due in part to the narrative of her disability, which enigmatically entertains, as a tale of magic realism (in which "the leg got up by itself one day and walked on off") or of cunning adventure, in which Eva exchanges her leg for money (30-31). In this performance, her body testifies to her wit and strength; performing her disability affords Eva acceptance and respect in the community. Her disability is legible through the narrative of white oppression of the Black community: her body, like so many before hers, must be subjugated and mutilated to survive.
Shadrack's experiences as a World War I veteran attest to his own position as a victim of white systemic violence. After the introduction, a history of National Suicide Day opens the novel, offering the reader alongside it a history of its creator Shadrack, a seemingly omnipresent but ignored townsperson. Morrison takes the reader to the moment at which the uncanniness of Shadrack's war experience leads to him black out, later waking in a mental hospital:
He ran, bayonet fixed, deep in the great sweep of men flying across this field. Wincing at the pain in his foot, he turned his head a little to the right and saw the face of a soldier near him fly off. Before he could register shock, the rest of the soldier's head disappeared under the inverted soup bowl of his helmet. But stubbornly, taking no direction from the brain, the body of the headless soldier ran on, with energy and grace, ignoring altogether the drip and slide of brain tissue down its back. (1973, 7)
The terrifying image of the "headless soldier" refracts Shadrack's character throughout the text; he is described as a "young man of hardly twenty, his head full of nothing" (7). The adult Shadrack is "uncoordinated" (12), yet his actions are memorable, eventually gathering many behind him in the final Suicide Day march.
In a hospital in "1919," the reader reunites with Shadrack, who has presumably blacked out after witnessing the gruesome scene above. The reader learns of no extensive physical injury experienced by Shadrack, leaving the reader to assume that his hospitalization is mental or emotional in nature. While not legible upon his body, Morrison illuminates Shadrack's distress for the reader. Shadrack envisions his hands involuntarily growing wildly (1973, 8; 9) and becoming endlessly tangled with his shoelaces, effectively immobilizing him (15). In addition to feeling unable to move, Shadrack "suffer[s] from a blinding headache" (13) and physically reacts by trying to "fling off and away his terrible fingers" (9). These experiences then are not merely visual or mental, but physical for him. Moreover, these moments of distress generate unapologetically physical reactions from others, including being strapped into a straightjacket and the police later "pull[ing] his hands away" from his shoes and "lock[ing] him in a cell" (13), before ultimately "escort[ing] him to the back of a wagon" (14). Each of the interactions Shadrack has during these moments of distress result in an individual of authority physically restraining or moving him. Thus, his distress as disability is spatially present in so far as it is contained and made punishable by others, and his bodily autonomy, while ostensibly not impaired, is lost.
The treatment Shadrack receives at the hands of doctors and police officers—as well as the treatment he does not receive—are characteristic of the way Black veterans returning home from war were treated. In her research on treatment of Black veterans, Carlos Clarke Drazen notes that health care and support for Black World War I veterans were ostensibly available because of legislation that should have provided for veteran health care and education (2011, 151). In reality, assumptions about race impeded health care access. This particularly affected veterans like Shadrack, whose experiences in Sula evidence both maltreatment and an enforced subjugation in which he is given no information about his diagnosis or methods of care. According to K. Walter Hickel, whom Drazen quotes, the lacuna between legislation and racist practice led to a state in which a racialized interpretation of mental and physical health determined who or what was ill and what it meant to be healthy. Hickel writes, "physicians routinely applied not medical criteria but cultural and racial values…. Such cultural and racial views of disease, through medical fictions, had real consequences…physicians invalidated the disability claims of many black veterans" (qtd. in Drazen 2011, 152). In the instances Hickel references, the rejected legal claim of disability effectively invalidates physical, emotional, and especially social experiences of distress. Resultantly, people of color experiencing distress could be deemed healthy enough to return to service or other labor without treatment or support, such that subsequent changes in labor were seen as racialized character flaws rather than evidence of systemic abuse and neglect.
For Shadrack and many others, this lack of veteran health care was compounded by racist assumptions about Black madness, including the long-held racist pseudo-scientific assumption that people of color were less mentally capable and could not experience mental distress (Jarman 2011, 9-10). This racial stereotype in the guise of medical knowledge undergirded additional stereotypes of Black Americans as lazy, ignorant, or mentally inferior. Moreover, as Mollow notes, many of the stereotypes imposed upon Black Americans correspond with symptoms of depression or disability (2006, 73). Structural racism is therefore buffeted by medical scholarship, which simultaneously declare Black embodied experience a screen for moral inferiority and restrict access to health care and other resources. 6 The doctors treating Shadrack attest to this screen through their condescending treatment of him, referring to him as "Private" rather than by his name, repeating themselves angrily, saying, "We're not going to have any trouble today, are we?" and "Nobody is going to feed you forever" (1973, 9). Such speech—a veiled threat and an unironic reminder about the lack of structural support for (mad) Black (veteran) Americans—recasts the relationship as one not of care, but of punishment uniquely applied to Shadrack as both Black and distressed.
This discrimination lodged against the "mutually constituted" position of Black madness subsequently affects the way Black Americans recognize and seek treatment for their own mental or emotional disability and distress. Mollow's analysis of the racialized biopolitics of distress in Meri Nana-Ama Danquah's memoir Willow Weep for Me is a small, but formative part of the larger body of scholarship critiquing a medico-racialized model. Josh Lukin (2013) and other scholars of Disability Studies and madness like Bell and Michelle Jarman (2011) argue that disability in general and madness in particular have historically been under- and misdiagnosed in people of color because of a fear that such "deviance" would be read as a racial moral failure (Lukin 2013, 312; Bell 2011, 3-4; Jarman 2011, 20-21). Citing research by Jennifer James, Lukin writes that attempts to assert Black humanity, especially during and following the twentieth-century Civil Rights movement, historically eschewed ideas of the Black individual as vulnerable or impaired, seeking to refute and distance these comparisons (2013, 312). Lukin reads this deflection of social stereotypes alongside the Black community's hesitation to acknowledge the disabled within it. This rejection, born out of fear and oppression, may account for the ostracization of Shadrack by the townspeople of the Bottom, from whom no acts of communal care are shown. The townspeople generally ignore Shadrack: on his National Suicide Days "the grown people looked out from behind curtains as he rang his bell; a few stragglers increased their speed, and little children screamed and ran" (1973, 15). They fear, ignore, mock, and hide from his madness until it corresponds with their own desire to perform a sense of "mad" joy following Sula's death.
Beyond resisting ideas (and people) which seemingly align with racist assumptions about Black ability, perceivable Black madness was—and remains—incredibly dangerous for Black individuals, especially Black men (Erevelles 2011, 4). Madness historically has been a method of Othering and of delimiting agency (Foucault 2006, 156), as it represented non-normative performativity and reason, which were both malevolent and violent. The "threat" of madness catalyzes broader racist assumptions about Black violence. In her essay, "Coming Up from Underground: Uneasy Dialogues at the Intersections of Race, Mental Illness, and Disability Studies," Jarman notes that exhibits of "madness" are distinctly threatening "for black people, who are also in particular danger of being arrested, treated violently, and even shot if they are seen in public acting 'crazy'" (2011, 21). Hilton additionally argues that the mentally disabled and/or neurodivergent individual of color is cast in terms that legitimize their restrictions and surveillance, making the mad Black body "hypervisible" (2017, 226). However, as Gill and Erevelles point out, this intersection of Black madness is also a space of erasure (2017, 126-127). The dual position of hypervisibility and erasure flattens Shadrack and other mad Black individuals. Shadrack is hospitalized presumably because his distress is abnormal and medical care is ostensibly available; he is ejected from the hospital because his Blackness characterizes his distress in racialized terms (the repeated "Private" standing in for the long-used racist "Boy"), which reads his madness as a racial defect outside the purview of care. In the Bottom, Shadrack is both singular and normal. "The only black who could curse white people and get away with it" (Morrison 1973, 62), Shadrack was different and strange to the people of the Bottom and the larger community, but he was also unobtrusive, having been "absorbed," like his holiday, "into their thoughts, into their language, into their lives" (15).
This liminality of Shadrack as a character has informed much of the scholarship about Sula, which often reads him as contextualizing the novel through allusion to World War I and shell shock, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 7 Scholars conventionally have wed Shadrack as symbol to his role in the text as a prophetic figure who potentially foresees the mass drowning and continued white violence against the Black community and recognizes Sula's anxieties. Therein, his madness is absurd, prophetic, and metaphoric of socioeconomic, racial, or militarized traumas. Thus, across a selection of 20 pieces of scholarship on Sula, with publication dates ranging from 1978 to 2017, 8 13 9 either directly describe or allude to Shadrack as a metaphor or symbol, and ten 10 described him as prophetic, divine, or psychic, replicating stereotypes about madness. These readings of Shadrack repurpose his embodied experience of distress in order to critique some of the systems they see oppressing him and perhaps, extenuating his experiences. This framing of madness as primarily symbolic for other issues is admittedly fraught as it characterizes the deflection of mad-identified individuals across history. However, while recognizing madness as individual experience is not the focus of such articles, scholars who interpret Shadrack as victim to systemic racism and militarized violence highlight that experiences like Shadrack's were and continue to be common.
The above outline helps to illuminate Shadrack as a figure whose presence in the text and fictional experiences offer a reading of Sula in which Morrison makes visible, and to some extent foregrounds, the liminality of mad Black individuals. Below, I delve into these various networks of oppression, depicted above, which influence Shadrack and the text overall, specifically, Shadrack's veteran experiences and competing conceptions of Black madness as gestures of state violence. Following approaches by Erevelles, Jarman, and Mollow, I extend my analysis beyond how the text depicts madness to the systems that define and legislate mad lives. Reading against a typical rejection of mental disability or distress as metaphor, Jarman notes that the tethering of slavery to madness "reminds readers of the long history of racist misappropriations of 'madness,' not only to justify social oppression, but to perpetuate the so-called rationality of slavery itself" (2011, 16). Building upon their productive work as well as adjacent readings of Shadrack through trauma studies, I offer alternate readings of his character as resisting solely metaphoric interpretations and as a significant portrayal of mad Black lives.
Shadrack's Agentic Madness
The dual manner in which Shadrack's distress is physicalized—through his own experience and the intervention of others—contrasts the otherwise distant portrayal of the character in the narrative. As a peripheral character, the reader is not privy to larger characterization of Shadrack as they are with Sula or Eva. Additionally, after "1919" the narrative perspective in the scenes in which he is present approximates his thoughts only briefly before extending outward to how the townspeople see him. For instance, while the reader experiences Shadrack's initial distress in the hospital alongside him, the narrative then moves outward to how others in the Bottom interpreted his distress. Thus, "once the people understood the boundaries and nature of his madness, they could fit him, so to speak, into the scheme of things" (Morrison 1973, 15). This is not the voice of Shadrack hoping to be "fit into the scheme of things," but those in the Bottom or a distant narrator considering the process. This move away from Shadrack's perspective is demonstrated by a visual break in the page; however, during the 1941 Suicide Day parade it is less clear to the reader from whose perspective they watch as it seems to shift between sentences (159). The result is disorienting and perhaps an attempt on Morrison's behalf to represent the experience from Shadrack's equally "befuddled" and "frightened" position (159). The reader, therefore, experiences Shadrack's distress through him, but interprets his reactions to it alongside the townspeople.
The narrator's and townspeople's descriptions of Shadrack return again and again to negative associations of madness, loss, and neglect, replicating the language used to describe mental distress and madness across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Sula alone, Shadrack is "crazy" (Morrison 1973, 15), "ravaged" (7), at once reflective (14) and "hysteri[c]" (12); he is "uncoordinated" (12), disorderly, as well as meticulously structured and "unthreatening" (62). "The nature of his madness" (15), as Morrison's narrator describes it, includes Shadrack's physical appearance (whose "eyes were so wild, his hair so long and matted") (15). Shadrack seems not to care whether he adheres to (or recognizes) the boundaries of bodily conduct, as Sula describes him as the "terrible Shad who walked about with his penis out, who peed in front of ladies and girl-children" (62), but simultaneously Shadrack seems unsexualized in that the townspeople say he "never touched anybody, never fought, never caressed" (15). The variation in the way the text frames Shadrack highlights his position as tabula rasa for the Bottom's—and perhaps, the reader's—assumptions about mental distress. Eva's partially agentic role in her disability and her performance of it mark her as resistant, strong, and cunning, while Shadrack in his supposed submission makes evident the violence of war, racialized medical mistreatment, and white oppression. 11
In much scholarship analyzing Sula, Shadrack's performative madness is metonymic of these systems. His body recalls and represents, and such representations are integral to research in African American Studies and American Studies for the archival work they encourage and pursue. This scholarship points toward the demand to recognize Shadrack as a complex figure. Inherently, this compels us to read his body not merely as symbolic, but as living, inhabiting and negotiating social norms through mental distress or madness. His creation of National Suicide Day acts as a means of self-therapy, yes, but it also implicates the medical and socioeconomic neglect of madness of and by the Black community. This emphasis on Shadrack as symbol has two main effects for the way the character and the novel are read. First, it seems to elide lived experience of mental distress with its visibility or the possibility of witnessing it, thereby Othering madness as witnessed rather than lived, as well as neglecting the importance of madness as disability. Second, it situates Shadrack's distress in line with a traumatic reaction that can be explained through the war alone and not followed through and compounded by daily embodied experience both within and outside of his community. Instead of reviewing how Shadrack's disability is made visible, then, I turn to the spaces in which the narrator approximates Shadrack's perception of his own experiences to see how they point out and refute various systems of oppression.
Sula's publication in 1973 in the midst of the American wars in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia implicates the history of the construction of madness alongside state violence. 12 As wounded veterans returned home without conventional, visible bodily harm, mental distress and disability became mediated through both academic and public spheres. Shadrack's mistreatment by the medical community and others in the Bottom speaks to contemporaneous discussions about the health of Black men in the U.S., instigated in part through the 1965 Moynihan Report as well as ongoing discussions of racial liberalism and the Civil Rights Movement. The novel's publication and narrative dates, then, invite dialogue between Shadrack's World War I experiences and those of contemporary veterans as their timelines correspond with each other, highlighting the sustained practice of pathologizing and segregating mad-identified individuals of color.
Sula thus enters into pre-existing conversations about traumatic war experience as well as debates in racial liberalism about the socioeconomic problems affecting the Black American family. The first of these issues would culminate in part soon after the novel's publication in 1980 with the addition of PTSD to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-III (DSM-III) (Wessely 2006, 208; 269). Prompted in part by mid-1960s discussion about racial inequality publicized further after the 1965 The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (commonly called the Moynihan Report), the latter concern very much continues in present-day works which address the social and structural acts of oppression against people of color in the U.S. Through Shadrack, Morrison is in dialogue within these intersecting vectors of pathologizing mental distress and race. Morrison's portrayal of Shadrack, as Manuela López Ramírez, Trevor Dodman, and Chuck Jackson point out, does correspond with symptoms of World War I victims of shell shock and later twentieth-century PTSD. Pamela Thurschwell extends this connection in her analysis of Sula, writing
Along with World War I, Vietnam also hovers behind the political landscape of Sula. Shadrack's complete lack of understanding of the war in which he finds himself, Plum's heroin addiction, and the background noise of the history of Black soldiers in America required to fight for a nation which granted them only grudging, nominal rights and citizenship, all remind readers that Sula is a novel of 1973. (114)
Thurschwell here articulates the lineage of U.S. militarized violence which both employed and abused Black soldiers. As she gestures at the end of this quotation, these acts of militarized violence abroad belie state and social violence against Black Americans at home.
Morrison signals these connections to the reader through the continuous presence of Shadrack in the Bottom across time. His entry into the text in 1919, the final Suicide Day parade in 1941, and his last appearance in 1965, each mark moments of high conflict in U.S. history: the end of World War I, the U.S.'s entry into World War II following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, and the escalation of U.S. combat in Vietnam (Appy 2015, 132). This contextualization of international and domestic conflicts reminds the reader of the sustained effects of war and violence in collective experience, despite the ostensible dates that confine them. By extension, these dates also mark progressions in the biomedicalization of mental distress as it coalesces into contemporary nosology—one instantiation of it develops from World War I shell shock to the Vietnam War's PTSD. Subject to these moments of state-imposed violence as a soldier, Shadrack's distress makes him further susceptible to acts of state control and negligence. Writing on race and mental health, Frank Keating, echoing Mollow, connects these overtly: "The medicalisation [sic] of mental illness means that containment, control and compliance become essential features of mental health practices […. which] resemble some BME [black and minority ethnic] communities' experiences in everyday life" (2015, 128). Keating's pattern of regulation recalls Foucault's identified model of "liberation and enslavement," in which the mad individual—and in this case, the mad individual of color—can access state services only in moments of extreme distress, not to be cared for, but rather "protectively" contained. Shadrack's primary experience of distress in 1919 speaks to this, as his psycho-emotional responses result in his being restrained in a straitjacket and later arrested (Morrison 1973, 9; 13).
Shadrack's experiences are compounded by U.S. practices of militarized intervention and racialized medical care. Contemporaneous discussions of the inequality of Black Americans worsened this racialization of the biomedical model of distress, as the Moynihan Report, popular culture, and public policy propagated myths pathologizing Black Americans. 13 Writer of the report Daniel Patrick Moynihan promoted economic development to support the Black American family, with specific attention on the Black man and father (Geary 2011, 53; 58). According to the report, the crux of the socioeconomic disparity facing Black families was due to the un- or underemployment of Black men, the breakdown of the family, and the matriarchal society which led to the disempowerment of the Black father (U. S. Dept. of Labor 1965, 25; 34). Moynihan writes, "the object should be to strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it to raise and support its members as do other families. After that, how this group of Americans chooses to run its affairs, take advantage of its opportunities, or fail to do so, is none of the nation's business" (U. S. Dept. of Labor 1965, 47-48). Moynihan's articulation of the state's responsibility for Black families marks out the supposed limits of state support and gestures toward blaming Black Americans for the structural oppression to which they have been and continue to be subject. The report garnered much pushback from those who argued that it recycled stereotypes about Black Americans (Geary 2011, 60). While essentially placing the onus of socioeconomic success on Black Americans, the report also disregarded the consistent lack of care given to Black Americans as well as the fact that they were largely excluded from discussions about public policy, social science, and medical care (60). We might read Shadrack's origination of National Suicide Day as a challenge to that exclusion, as it functions as a sort of municipal day of care. The narrator describes Shadrack's motivation to create the day in terms of care, too, stating that Shadrack "hit on the notion that if one day a year were devoted to [the unexpectedness of death and dying], everybody could get it out of the way and the rest of the year would be safe and free" (Morrison 1973, 14). Shadrack's encouragement of suicide, while polemical, speaks to a need to recognize pain, whether through actual suicide or symbolic acknowledgement by marching with him. Embracing the ambiguity of Morrison's framing of the day, we might also read National Suicide Day as a recognition of what Harold Braswell calls "end-of-life autonomy" (Braswell 2011). The "holiday" then is not only an act of self-care or "self-soothing," but also evidences the creation of local institutions to satisfy needs neglected by the state.
Indeed, Shadrack's actions throughout the text speak to his attempts to care for others. In his encounter with Sula after she and Nel accidentally cause Chicken Little's death, his response of "always" (Morrison 1973, 62)—so threateningly obtuse to Sula—is an act of comfort. In Sula Shadrack sees a comrade also fearing death, what is left over when the face flies off. Responding empathetically,
he tried to think of something to say to comfort her, something to stop the hurt from spilling out of her eyes. So he had said "always," so she would not have to be afraid of the change—the falling away of skin, the drip and slide of blood, and the exposure of bone underneath. He had said "always" to convince her, to assure her, of permanency. (157)
Reflecting upon this after Sula's death, Shadrack acknowledges that helping her has benefitted himself as well. In fear after losing Chicken Little, Sula goes to his home following a period of intense distress for Shadrack, during which he stops his meticulous cleaning, does not note the passage of time, and feels increasingly lonely (156). Her arrival seems, to him, to renew his existential purpose, in a sense. Sula "wanted something—from him. Not fish, not work, but something only he could give" (156). This reference to Shadrack's other roles selling fish or doing odd jobs around town indicates his legibility via his labor and indicates that Shadrack has not felt valued aside from the labor he produces. His acts of communal care rebut racist pseudo-scientific arguments, as in the Moynihan Report, of the unproductiveness or incapacity for family life of Black American men. He asserts an alternative family model, declaring Sula "his visitor, his company, his guest, his social life, his woman, his daughter, his friend" (157). In these myriad ways, he rejects a model of liberalism that locates its work in the "freeing" of bodies of color through violence and reaffirms communal and self-love in the Black community of the Bottom.
In focusing on the way the narrative constructs Shadrack as mad—through experiencing his distress and visualizing it as Other—the above reading points to how distress is regarded by assumedly white authorities as that which needs to be contained and penalized, and by the Black community as something to be avoided or feared. In these sections Morrison zooms into moments of Shadrack's distress, valuing and rendering his own experiences as significant. Although Shadrack is an arguably minor character, the persistence of misreading or metaphorizing his experiences of mental distress replicates and perpetuates harmful rhetorics that regard madness as a personal or racial deficiency. Minor characters often become placeholders for madness in literature, as Taylor Donnelly points out, "embody[ing] issues of marginalization and dependency" (2012, 33) and "gestur[ing] toward the realm beyond their flattening and metaphorization, in a direction of other stories, subjectivities, and lived experiences" (60). Rereading the small selections of the novel in which Shadrack is present not only makes evident how scholars have constructed their analyses of him as demonstrating the effects of structural racism, but moreover reaffirms the need to still combat racist paradigms of Black madness, in medical as well as literary fields.
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At the climactic moment of Toni Morrison's Sula, the townspeople of the Bottom parade to their deaths on National Suicide Day, while the day's founder Shadrack stands transfixed and disregarded by society, his own traumatic stress and his still ringing bell resonating metaphorically as a funeral toll (1973, 162). Shadrack spends much of the book and has spent much of the book's literary history being read as a symbol: of PTSD, the treatment of Black World War I veterans, or the mysteriously wise town "lunatic." The Bottom's treatment of Shadrack—its discomfort at standing or looking closer—continues in the treatment of mad-identified people, especially those of color in the U.S. today. Given that Sula remains a popular text for scholarly analysis and perhaps a useful teaching tool for modeling Disability Studies readings, the text is ideal for highlighting the lack of scholarly engagement with madness—and changing it. Equally important, Sula's structure as a novel and its literary history demonstrate the continued marginalization of mad-identified people of color.
More broadly, this analysis works against continued sanist and ableist paradigms that inflect discourse within and outside of the academy. Grounded within real, lived experience, Mad Studies scholarship rejects the confines of "traditional" academic materials and forums, and the development of a Mad humanities demands the same. As the continuing media stereotypes linking presidential political inadequacy and mental distress (perceived as "illness") demonstrate, investment in (literary) Mad Studies dialogues must be taken on within a public humanities.
A Mad humanities—in academic and public scholarship—then, supplements the already productive work done in Disability Studies and activism and draws attention to potential places of growth in intersectional work, as in critical race theory and trauma studies. Perhaps the best justification for moving away from a universalized, biomedical interpretation of distress is that it has not yet been successful in addressing the concerns of mad-identified individuals, especially mad-identified persons of color, who are further implicated in concatenated systems of oppression. Rethinking the language and frameworks we apply to literature—and use in our pedagogies—has great effect upon individual life experience within and outside of academe 14 (Burgett 2014; Griffin 2014; Heiland and Huber 2015; Schroeder 2017; Shumway 2016). Such a reconceptualization will be messy and asks us as scholars to move within different frames; as Bradley Lewis notes, "it is very possible to tell a story about oneself using psychiatric diagnostic metaphors and plots for the purposes of gaining disability benefits and resources, while at the same time seeing these same diagnostic metaphors and plots as incomplete, inadequate, or even harmful….we do not have to have a mono-story of our mental difference" (2017, 206). A public, Mad humanities compels us to investigate the influence scholarly and popular representations of madness have.
As such, literary and cultural studies scholars need to be aware not only of what we theorize, but how. Engaging in discussions of mental or emotional disability and distress in the humanities reaffirms our global neurodiversity and recognizes the rights and dignity of mad individuals while also advocating for more accurate descriptions of actions like those of President Trump as ableist discrimination and harassment. Extending beyond the classroom, public Mad humanities thus identifies and criticizes the racist, ableist effects of the Trump administration's attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and defund Title X, which directly affect the material conditions and access to care of all mad people and mad people of color, in particular. 15 Calling out those actions in others compels us to do the same for ourselves. As such, an overtly Mad humanities aligns with other methodologies and fields, such as Disability Studies, critical race theory, or Native American and Indigenous Studies, in asking how our own pedagogies, scholarships, and daily acts buttress systemic violence by privileging some ways of knowing over others.
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- Importantly, the use of umbrella terms like "mad" does not mean that people outright reject biomedical or clinical diagnoses or possible care through various medical venues. Many scholar-activists, including Merri Lisa Johnson (2014) and Mollow (2006), note that identifying with clinical terms and diagnoses can also empower the individual and enable self-advocacy. The choice to personally or publicly reject or identify with clinical language is unique and frequently complicated by various material and political factors that enable an individual to access care.
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- While it is outside the scope of this article to enumerate the differences between experiences of mad and/or disabled individuals, an example may help clarify Beresford's and others' call for the field. For instance, the relative non-visibility of madness or distress often requires that an individual disclose their experiences to others to improve their access—an action that comes with no small risk. Those identified, by themselves or others, as mad may subsequently risk forced hospitalization, medical consumption, segregation through education or political access, as well as the social effects of stigmas about madness.
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- For instance, madness is labeled and understood differently within the following selection of recent titles: Celia Malone Kingsbury's 2002 The Peculiar Sanity of War: Hysteria in the Literature of World War I, Charley Baker et al.'s Madness in Post-1945 British and American Fiction (2010), and Michel Bérubé's The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read (2016) (emphasis my own).
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- See, for instance, Price's discussion of how the privileging of some characteristics on the academic job market implicitly marks distressed or disabled candidates as underperforming or subpar ("The Essential Functions of the Position: Collegiality and Productivity" in Mad at School 2011).
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- I retain the present tense here to acknowledge that such medicalized racism persists today. Dr. William Lawson reports having been taught as a professor of psychiatry that Black Americans could not be subject to mental illness. This medico-racialized interpretation of distress and disability, he says, was "actually published in papers in 1970s, 1980s, and the issue is still arising, and occasionally you see it in the 1990s and even in the 21st century" (NPR Talk of the Town). In her introduction to the special issue of African American Review, Pickens places recent and past work on Black disability in conversation, offering several lines of inquiry to this research. Her endnotes, which she describes as "an accessible way into this text" (2017a, 95), also offer a minor bibliography of important work discussing racist underpinnings of U.S. medical history (see 100n6, for example).
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- For some writers, Shadrack is "symbolically made effeminate by the war" (Thurschwell 2013, 113); "symbolizes the nihilistic and suicidal tendencies of twentieth-century man with his World Wars" (Ogunyemi 1979, 132); "metaphorically symbolizes the black community's struggle to survive in the face of racial discrimination and oppression" (Ramírez 2016, 144); and, along with Sula "represent[s] black sons and daughters of America who would be more at home in Africa" (V. Lewis 1987, 92).
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- While Sula scholarship is much more expansive, the texts chosen for this archive each discuss Shadrack's character at length rather than or in addition to the major characters of Sula and Nel.
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- See Ogunyemi (1979, 132), Willis (1982, 39), V. Lewis (1987, 92), Montgomery (1989, 129), Bryant (1990, 734; 736; 743), Bergenholtz (1996, 95), Novak (1999, 187), Thurschwell (2012, 113), Ramírez (2016, 132; 140; 144), and Idol (2017, 61).
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- See Ogunyemi (1979, 133), Willis (1982 39), V. Lewis (1987, 92), Montgomery (1989, 129; 136), Bryant (1990, 744), Hunt (1993, 450), Mayberry (2003, 531), Ramírez (2016, 139), and Idol (2017, 57).
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- Though outside the scope of this study, their competing portrayals of disability in the novel provide additional space for an extension of Garland-Thomson's gendered reading of disability. The characters' treatment also is influenced by gendered perceptions of survival, motherhood, and bodily autonomy.
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- Puar's 2017 The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability offers a crucial and thorough analysis of the relationship between disability and state violence via debilitation.
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- Gregg Santori (2012) also reads Sula as responding to the Moynihan Report, with an emphasis on what he calls "maternal violence." See his "Sula and the Sociologist: Toni Morrison on American Biopower after Civil Rights," Theory & Event 15 (1).
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- See, for instance, much of the work by the National Endowment for the Humanities, including the series Ideas Matter: Checking in with the Public Humanities by WAMC Northeast Public Radio and the state humanities councils of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont: http://wamc.org/term/ideas-matter.
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- This is not to suggest that health care prior to the Trump administration was comprehensive or equitable. For points in the larger discussion regarding changes to the Affordable Care Act and access to mental health care, see Jones et al. (2018). Title X administers federal funding for reproductive and sexual health care and education. Mad individuals and scholars have long noted the disparities with which mad and/or disabled individuals are restricted from access to reproductive and sexual health care information. For more information on the medical ethics of Title X and madness or disability, see Waxman (1994) as well as Stein and Dillenburger (2016).
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