Judith Weisenfeld is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton University. Her research focuses on African American religious history, with particular interest in migration and urbanization, film and popular culture, gender and sexuality, new religious movements, and the intersections of religion and race. Her books include New World a Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (2016), which won the 2017 Albert J. Raboteau Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions, Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929–1949 (2007), and African American Women and Christian Activism: New York's Black YWCA, 1905–1945 (1997). Her essays have been published in the Journal of Africana Religions, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, American Religion, and Religion & American Culture, among others. Her current research explores the intersections of psychiatry and African American religions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She is an elected member of the Society of American Historians and an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, white American psychiatrists declared that mental illness among African Americans in the South had reached alarming proportions and argued that, in a notable percentage of these cases, “religious excitement” was the key precipitating factor. This talk explores late nineteenth and early twentieth-century psychiatric theories about race, religion, and the “normal mind” and shows how the emerging specialty of psychiatry drew on works from history of religions to make racialized claims about African Americans’ “traits of character, habit, and behavior.” This history of the intersections of psychiatry and African American religions sheds light on how ideas about race, religion, and mental normalcy shaped African American experience in courts and mental hospitals and on the role the racialization of religion played more broadly in the history of medicine, legal history, and the history of disability.