About the Seminar

Welcome to the NEH Summer Seminar on Race and Mental Health in History and Literature and thank you for your interest in this important topic. This page will give a brief overview of the goals and processes of the seminar. I encourage you to visit the other links on the seminar homepage to learn more specific details about housing and transportation, the slate of invited scholars or how to apply, among other things. Any questions not addressed by these pages can be sent to the project director at vtmentalhealthseminar@vt.edu for a prompt reply.

This three-week seminar will take place from July 10-30, 2016, and will spend two weeks on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, and one week in Washington, DC. During our time together, we will examine the question of how the political, social, and scientific relationship between race and mental health has been articulated in its historical, literary, and medical contexts in both the United States and Africa since the late nineteenth century. Focusing specifically on African and African-American contexts and experiences, we will examine the ways that political, social, and cultural processes have been intertwined with the development of psychology and psychiatry, and vice versa. Summer scholars should expect an intellectually robust experience, with opportunities to acquire new knowledge, pursue their own research or pedagogical goals, discuss interests with leading scholars from a variety of fields, and explore the ways that our ideas about race and psychology affect how we interact with historical and literary content.

The relationship between race, racism, and mental health has been widely explored in the history and literature of many different societies, allowing for significant connection and comparison that bring American and world history and literature into conversation with each other. In particular, the seminar will provide all Summer Scholars with an opportunity to read and discuss four classic texts that explore the relationship between race and mental health in the United States and Africa. On the American side, we will read W.E.B Dubois’s Souls of Black Folk and Richard Wright’s Native Son, while Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart will allow us to examine questions of mental health as they relate to twentieth century Africa. In addition, Summer Scholars will have access to studies by historians, anthropologists, literary theorists, psychologists, and psychiatrists to complement the issues raised by the core texts. Summer Scholars will also have the opportunity to interact with several internationally renowned experts in the study of the historical, sociological, and literary intersections of race and mental health to discuss core texts as well as their own research interests.

Summer Scholars will also have the opportunity to pursue research topics of their own choosing. This may involve working with primary sources of historical significance, other works of African and African-American literature, or the records of psychiatric hospitals, to name just a few options. Many of these sources will be available through Virginia Tech libraries and various online databases. To facilitate more original research, however, one week of the seminar will take place in Washington DC, where participants will meet with specialists at the National Library of Medicine, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives. As part of this trip, participants will also receive a tour of St. Elizabeths Hospital, which served a large African American population in the years after the Civil War and which still functions as a psychiatric hospital today. Through these unique sources and experiences, we will examine the historical contexts for our core texts, as well as develop understanding of the complex relationship between political, social, cultural, and scientific factors that influence how the ideas about race and mental health has been understood over time and space.

The seminar will largely be based around group discussion of readings and research findings in which all Summer Scholars are expected to participate actively. During the two weeks in Blacksburg, we will generally have a morning discussion section with time set aside in the afternoon for other activities, including lectures and discussions with visiting scholars or time to work on research projects. Time will also be allocated in these weeks for scholars to do required readings and to engage with each other and visiting scholars.

The seminar locations are attractive destinations conducive to enriching, but leisurely, scholarly pursuits. Blacksburg is a quintessential college town in the foothills of Appalachia. The university, including the residential hall and library, are located close to downtown coffee shops, restaurants, and entertainment. Outdoor activities in the summertime are plentiful, with the Huckleberry Trail providing a comfortable route for walking, running, or cycling. The campus Duck Pond offers a relaxing spot for reading and writing. Many cultural events take place in Blacksburg during the summer, including theater performances, musical concerts, and movies in the vintage Lyric Theatre. The attractions of Washington, DC are, of course, too expansive to list. Summer Scholars will have evenings and weekends to explore and enjoy these locales in addition to the stimulating experience of the seminar itself.