Today is Martin Luther King day and Americans have heard many tributes to King, a great leader who helped to bring about the dream of equality for all Americans. Every schoolchild learns about Martin Luther King and his inspiring work, but not everyone knows that his wife Coretta Scott King has also been a source of inspiration for many children.
Coretta Scott King, who died seven years ago this month, left an ongoing gift to American children in the form of the Coretta Scott King award of the American Library Association. From its beginnings in 1969, the Coretta Scott King has honored the work of African American writers and illustrators of books for children.
The 2013 author award went to Andrea Davis Pinkney, author of Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America. The illustrator award went to Bryan Collier, illustrator of I, Too, Am America.
In the years since 1970, the award has gone so such remarkable writers as
• Eloise Greenfield
• Julius Lester
• Toni Morrison
• Virginia Hamilton
• William Dean Myers
What a wonderful gift to give to America’s children! Some of the best books of the last half century have been honored by this prize and have enriched the lives of many Americans. So when we pay tribute to Martin Luther King, let’s also give thanks to Coretta Scott King for her many contributions over the years and the legacy that continues to honor her name.
Those of us who live in large cities, as I do, are accustomed to seeing people acting strangely on the sidewalks or in buses. The mumbling woman in the shabby coat clutching two or three tattered shopping bags is given a wide berth. People avoid sitting next to her on the bus or passing too closely on the sidewalk for fear of being subjected to snarling abuse or a rambling, disjointed monologue.
Sometimes we recognize mental illness when we see it, but that doesn’t mean that we as a society do much to help those who suffer from it. Recent news stories have reported that roughly half the prisoners held in federal and state prisons have mental health issues and hospital emergency rooms are facing soaring costs for the treatment of psychiatric disorders. The statistics provide a gloomy picture of the state of mental health care in America, but the country has a long history of ignoring or mistreating people with mental disorders. It takes a lot of courage to try to help people who refuse to ask for help and may even turn it down when it is offered. Dorothea Dix is one of the few people who made mental health care her mission.
Born in 1802 in Massachusetts, Dorothea Dix had the misfortune to be born to parents who struggled with alcoholism and were often unable to care for their children. Luckily, Dorothea was able to get help from her grandmother, with whom she lived for many years. She grew up to be a thoughtful, responsible young woman and decided to earn a living by teaching school. But school teaching was difficult work and Dorothea’s health was not good. She had to give up teaching and look for other ways of being useful.
Like many other 19th century reformers, Dorothea was neither beautiful nor charming. She did not attract suitors and soon realized she would have to make her way on her own. Her poor health limited her choices, but she had enough money to travel to England where she stayed for a year with the Rathbones, a Quaker family involved in the European movement to improve the treatment of insane people. Here was a field in which she could do some good.
When she returned to Massachusetts, Dorothea Dix discovered that care of the insane was even worse in America than in many European countries. No one at the time understood the causes of mental illness. People who became violent and delusional were often treated as criminals. Drugs were often used in the hopes of alleviating symptoms, but the drugs were ineffective. Only wealthy people could take care of mentally ill patients in their own home, most working class people and the poor could do nothing for them. Usually, they were placed in jails or boarded with families who were paid to take care of them but usually kept them imprisoned in barns or outbuilding, sometimes tied to the walls or wearing shackles.
Dorothea’s hope was to persuade the states to build institutions devoted to the care of the insane so that they would not be placed in prisons. The weapon she used to bring about change was to report on the conditions that she found in every city and town that she visited. There was no supervision of the care of mentally ill patients. Often the people responsible for their care gave them minimal food, never treated their physical illnesses, and let them live in filth without even proper clothing or heat. A quick death was often the only release they had from these intolerable conditions.
Dorothea Dix’s report to the state of Massachusetts in 1843, made clear the conditions she had found: “I proceed, Gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of Insane Persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience.” Citizens of Massachusetts were shocked to discover how dire conditions were in their state. They authorized the building of an institution where people suffering from mental illness could be cared for humanely.
Dix spent the rest of her life trying to bring better health care to other states; she wrote reports; she appeared at legislative hearings; and she drafted legislation. She was one of the early lobbyists fighting for a cause she believed in. Gradually institutions were built in many states to house people who could not take care of themselves. For the 19th century that was a great step forward. If you want to read more about Dorothea Dix, her biography by Helen E. Marshall, Dorothea Dix: Forgotten Samaritan (1937) is still available in many libraries.
During the 1950s, psychiatric drugs were discovered and gradually made available. The institutions so carefully designed by Dix and others are not considered the most appropriate way to treat mental illness. The horrific conditions that Dix discovered no longer exist, but our prisons and many of our neighborhoods are still housing people whose lives are made miserable by untreated mental illness. We need a crusader like Dorothea Dix to awaken the conscience of Americans and to ensure that our health plans cover mental as well as physical illnesses. We are a rich country and we can do better than allow so many people to suffer in pain and isolation.
How can anyone write a blog post today without mentioning Downton Abbey the PBS show that has a vast swath of Americans waiting impatiently for its Fourth Season debut tonight? For weeks, media outlets have offered tantalizing glimpses of what is in store for Lord Grantham, Lady Cora and their family, friends and staff. Mary, the newly widowed eldest daughter, seems to be the focus of the new season, but others in the show have more unusual roles and play more historically resonant characters.
Lady Cora joins the ranks of the real-life American heiresses who married British aristocrats during the tail end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Like Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome Churchill, Lady Cora represents the marriage of American wealth with British titles. The privileged lives of the upstairs contingent of the Downton Abbey cast are puritanical compared with the scandalous behavior of the real life counterparts of Edwardian aristocrats. Jennie Churchill was reported to have had many lovers, but that didn’t prevent her from playing a central role in aristocratic society. And unlike Lady Cora, Lady Churchill did not appear to be very involved in the upbringing or lives of her children. As a child Winston Churchill seldom saw his mother who relied on nannies and servants to care for her children. Compared with the Churchills, the Grantham family seems middle-class; they are almost modern helicopter parents, concerned in the day-to-day struggles of their daughters, their servants and their relatives. And who among us can imagine Lady Cora having an affair with another man?
Perhaps this season’s series will concentrate on Lady Mary and her adjustment to widowhood. There will be suitors no doubt, but it seems like an old, old story that we’ve seen many times before. Much more interesting would be following the adventures of Lady Edith, who is tempted to move to London and take up with a man married to an insane woman. Barred from divorce by English law, Edith’s admirer will have no choice but to persuade her to accept a status as mistress. Will she be willing? I can’t help hoping that she can build herself a fine career as a journalist, move in with her lover, and have a far more exciting life than could ever be found at Downton Abbey.
And then there is Daisy. Will she take on the farm that her father-in-law is trying to give her? Instead of being a kitchen maid, or even the family cook, she could become a successful farmer and build herself a new kind of life. Her story would be far more fun to follow than poor Mary’s. After all Mary is stuck with living in the Abbey until her son can take the reins of managing the house. No matter which suitor she accepts her life is pretty well laid out.
In fact, the downstairs contingent of Downton Abbey have more to look forward to than their counterparts upstairs. The 1920s brought in sweeping changing which meant upward movement for the hordes of women and men working in domestic service. Leaving the grand mansions to become factory workers, shopkeepers, teaches, nurses and other possible new jobs gave them far more independence than they ever had before, while their “betters” struggled to keep their outdated lifestyles going. Let’s hope the producers give us a glimpse of the new world opening up for so many former servants after World War I.
In between episodes, if you want to find out more about the American heiresses who traveled to England to marry, read To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace. It paints a lively picture of transatlantic entanglements that helped draw our two countries together.