It’s always refreshing to hear a new well-made history podcast, especially one that seems to learn from both the lessons of the past, and how to make an engaging podcast in the present.
Drapetomaniax: Unshackled History, launching today from Sony Music Entertainment and Pharell Williams OTHERTone, seems to be just that kind of podcast. Host Michael Harriot, the self proclaimed “Dean of Black Twitter,” says of the show, “We picked the most fascinating figures and important-but-largely-unknown events from Black history and seasoned it with the biggest stars, the best storytellers and the most respected scholars.”
The show’s title is a term for a fake mental illness coined in May 1851 by Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright who believed that “drapetomania” caused slaves to want to run away and that with “proper medical advice strictly followed can be almost entirely prevented.”
Each week, the show will highlight a major piece of largely untold Black history or shed light on the real truth behind an event or person that has been largely whitewashed and mix in profoundly humorous storytelling while doing it. The press release calls the show’s style, “a little barbershop humor”, which is probably true on a technical level but it doesn’t explain how they implement it. From beat to beat in the first episode, “The Outlandish Forest Joe”, the show host tells the story in a very informal comedic style aided by the fine work of tv host Joy Reid and comedian Roy Wood Jr. on commentary and extremely effective use of historical fiction. This episode imagines what it would look if Black Twitter and TV News and radio were around in 1820 to talke about Forest Joe. He was a freed slave and his Lowcountry maroon band and his Robin Hood-like exploits to aid or free plantation slaves were the target of the South Carolina legislature resulting in his eventual death in 1823.
I had never heard of Forest Joe, much less the concept of a “maroon” from pre-Civil War America nomenclature, which was a word for a freed or escaped person of African descent who formed settlements. My mind was officially blown to hear that he and others created places to live in the Great Dismal swamp and used it as a base to survive and plan the freedom of other slaves.
Harris called Forest Joe, “a Black man that nobody could own”, and revealed a wild tale of how he couldn’t be caught for three years and slave owners even began to whisper that he was magic and he essentially claimed to have made his own bullet proof armor.
In between history lessons, modern context is added to embellish the scant details of his story like this imagined line from a female slave using Black Twitter in 1821 who was flirting with this tall freedom loving man, “Hey Joe I’ll be pickin cotton from sunup to sundown, but after that hit me up.”
Harris weaves an empowering tale of a man who he says “couldn’t go out like a punk”, and as a direct result of his work as a freeman attempting to free other Blacks, the state of South Carolina made it illegal for black people to be free in the state even making it illegal for a slave owner to free his slaves. (manumission). They also banned free black people from entering the state and issued a “freedom tax” of $50 a year on any free Black person already living there.
Drapetomaniax had me hooked from the beginning and the pace of information and informational comedy never slows down producing a consistently engaging show that seems destined for numerous awards from here on out.