Non/responses to the pandemic have painfully and chillingly illustrated how people, systems, society, etc., use purported "fitness/health/wellness," as well as age, location, and other factors to make decisions about worthiness and value.
This year, my living ableism definition modifications explicitly name birth place and living place. I removed the term "nationality" to avoid feeding into settler-imperialist conceptions of space/place and invite people to consider "living place" very expansively so as to include people who have pathological/criminal labels that invite surveillance, incarceration, institutionalization, etc., and for people who are transient, nomadic, non-possessory in how they exist, and more.
Previous definitions and additional context can be found here (2021), here (2020), and here (2019).
dark to light and light to dark images of the definition. Image description: rectangular image with the definition of ableism laid over various colored blocks in the background indicating the overlaid, intertwined, connected nature of all forms of systemic oppression to ableism. The following words are on the image: able·ism /ˈābəˌlizəm/ noun A system of assigning value to people's bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, productivity, desirability, intelligence, excellence, and fitness. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in eugenics, anti-Blackness, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. This systemic oppression that leads to people and society determining people's value based on their culture, age, language, appearance, religion, birth or living place, "health/wellness", and/or their ability to satisfactorily re/produce, "excel" and "behave." You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism. working definition by @TalilaLewis, updated January 2022, developed in community with disabled Black/negatively racialized folk, esp @NotThreeFifths. Read more: bit.ly/ableism2022
I have been updating my working definition of ableism for some years. This version simplifies some of the language from previous versions and explicitly includes desirability, misogyny, imperialism, language and religion as ideologies/characteristics used by societies, institutions, people to assign value to others. Please review context provided with the previous versions of the definition (linked above).
Deep purple and blue gradient background with the following words: ABLEISM a·ble·ism \ ˈābə-ˌli-zəm \ noun A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normality, intelligence, excellence, desirability, and productivity. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s language, appearance, religion and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel and "behave." You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism. a working definition by Talila "TL" Lewis*; updated January 2021 *developed in community with Disabled Black and other negatively racialized people, especially Dustin Gibson
Image of a quote from the piece with purple rust, and yellow background: "Anti-Black ableism" is redundant and contradictory simultaneously . . .because ableism and anti-Blackness are mutually inclusive and mutually dependent. So you can't have one without the other and you also can't adjectively modify one with the other because where one is they both must be. Each oppression does modify how a person experiences the other oppression, so they do modify the other in the literal sense.
Many people quote my definition of ableism without providing context into what it means to say that ableism is formed and informed by anti-Blackness.
Many also say, sign, write these words without providing necessary nuance about what this truth means for how ableism is uniquely wielded against Black people. So while people finally seem to be coming around to believing that ableism is inherently anti-Black, they are still gliding right past how this heart connection between ableism and racism means that ableism hits real different for Black people and racism hits real different for Black disabled people. Relatedly, many people have asked me why I do not use the term "anti-Black ableism."
I am encouraged by attempts to integrate these truths into folks' analysis of ableism and by continued curiosity. I also want to name that we still must collectively develop more nuanced words, signs and frameworks for these conversations to be had appropriately and justly.
I will offer a bit here and expand if/when I have more capacity and more thoughts. Black disabled people, especially, are encouraged to think and language and build and convene and discuss and challenge so we can collectively come into more understandings of ourselves our experiences our journeys our hearts.
I will begin here: Anti-black racism exists because “anti-Black” modifies racism, a word and practice that can and does apply to various and multiple negatively racialized groups. For instance, Native/Black peoples, Latinx peoples, Hmong peoples all experience racism specific to complexion, appearance, cultural, community, religious, and other practices, etc. Similarly, misogynoir expands on a particular kind of misogyny—the kind which is experienced by Black women/femmes.
But why would we use “anti-Black” to modify ableism when by its definition, at least in the US context, anti-Blackness is at the heart of ableism? See working definition of ableism here, and context for this definition here.
In short, since ableism is inherently anti-Black, I try my best not use the term "anti-Black" to modify ableism. "Anti-Black ableism" is redundant and contradictory simultaneously. That sounds weird, I know. It's because ableism and anti-Blackness are mutually inclusive and mutually dependent. So you can't have one without the other and you also can't adjectively modify one with the other because where one is they both must be. Each oppression does modify how a person experiences the other oppression, so they do modify the other in the literal sense.
That said, I really do appreciate that "anti-Black ableism" has been developed to try to focus on how Black non-disabled people, Black disabled people, and Black people who are labeled disabled (in good or in bad faith) are treated in every sense of the word. I know that there is something more needed to make this very unique experience that Black people have with ableism more clear. Still, I believe “anti-Black ableism” does not succeed in achieving the necessary clarity and that it may cause more harm to the effort being sought by those using the term.
There is no doubt that ableism absolutely hits different when wielded against Black people and Black communities. It’s justification of deprivation, depravity, murder and mayhem against Black/disabled peoples. It’s debasement, dehumanization and mass murder of the cruelest intensity and largest magnitude. All “justified” by racialized notions of delinquency, dependency, defectiveness as determined by white supremacists and their governments, corporations, medical/carceral institutions that directly and indirectly benefit from continued subjugation and criminalization, extraction and commodification, diagnosing and destruction of our most marginalized people and communities.
We must find ways to name how ableism is uniquely felt and experienced by Black people or we are not doing justice to how the long term inescapable and inextricable bond between racism and ableism places Black non-disabled people, Black disabled people, and Black people who are labeled “disabled” in mortal danger with no recourse.
I do wonder what other Black disabled folks thoughts are on this. What word or phrase can be collectively created to explain how Black people experience a racially magnified or racially manipulated or informed ableism?
Freeing Black Fates & Capturing Black Freedom: Reclaiming Our Humanity, Contextualizing Our Trauma and Honoring Our Resistance
A graphite drawing of a boy in a hoodie, based on George Stinney Jr. Contained within the outline of his body are portraits of those who have fallen to racial violence. From left to right: Renisha McBride, Philando Castile, Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and Ahmaud Arbery. Behind the boy is a line-up of armed police officers and vigilantes. Art by Frank Gallimore.
Content Warning: Black death and genocide, enslavement, incarceration, police/vigilante violence,
and various other forms of violence discussed. Please exercise discretion.
How do I know it’s safe to have a son in this America, in this America?
How do I know it’s safe to have my son in this America, in this America?
Always wanted a son, but now I’m afraid.
How will you see my baby?
How will you treat my baby?
How will I protect him from you?
Protect him from your fears
After all these years
Tell me. Tell me. Tell me.
I don’t want to be like those other mothers cryin in the streets.
No. No. No!
Their pain radiates
Their pain radiates
I don’t want that to be my fate. No. No!
What if I raise him right? will that save his life?
Tell me. Tell me. Tell me.
I just want him to grow old.
I just want him to come home.
- Melody Angel, 2015
Public executions of Black people and viral spectacles of Black anguish, death and mourning continue to take a heavy toll on the souls of Black folk.
The violent tradition of white supremacist extraction, exploitation and dispossession continues unabated, leaving Black people fighting to belong to ourselves during our shortened lives and after our premature deaths.
The terror, stress and trauma of this violence extend well beyond the individual executions and deaths. We are surrounded by reminders of the danger we are in, of the unmattering of our lives—wholly aware that our fates are predetermined in ways that others’ are not. Generations of violence and injustice rob us of the quiet enjoyment of our lives, our freedom and innocence, our loved ones, our peace of mind, and of our mental, emotional and physical health.
Black racial memory is infinite and complex—crossing peoples, oceans, time and space. As our bodies pile up so too does the death-hastening toll of the burden of knowing that our humanity means nothing to those who have the power to spill our life and spell our death.
We are experiencing centuries of criminalization and diagnosing of a whole peoples’ rational responses to violence and terror as criminal, insane, problematic. We have been expertly gaslit for generations.
The genesis of our [re]actions are clear. We are human. We are Black. Survival is in our spirit, rebellion in our blood.
What is not clear is how after centuries of Black folks holding, living and surviving through the same terrors over and over again, white supremacists are still telling us to teach our children how to try not to get killed instead of teaching theirs how not to kill. Their provocation has been intentionally skewed for generations. Where they should be asking “why’d we hunt, shoot, noose, kill?”, they instead ask “why’d they run, retaliate and resist?”
We run because we see justified Black people stand their ground and die on it too.
We resist because we see what happens to those who don't.
We run because we have a strong suspicion and sufficient evidence to prove that either way, white supremacy’ll kill us.
We resist because of generations of white supremacist harassment, violence, and terror.
We run in hopes that, after centuries of running, they will be reminded of our humanity--that we feel, love, and want to live.
We resist because we know they cannot and possibly never will be able to see our humanity.
Our [e]motions are understandable and justified, and our [re]actions are righteous attempts to unwrite our fates and secure some semblance of freedom--to circumvent their unique brand of life threatening and death dealing “justice.”
There is no justice in their “justice.” Of this we have been assured.
To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all of the time — and in one's work. And part of the rage is this: It isn't only what is happening to you. But it's what's happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance. . .
- James Baldwin, 1961
Black square with a definition written in white and tan words: Noircraticide noir·crat·i·cide /nwärˌˈkra(t)əˌsīd/ noun; verb the systematic destruction and erasure of Black peoples and cultures by the state, those acting in service of the state, and those educated or empowered by the state. Etymology: noir, of or relating to Black peoples, cultures; -crat, of, by, through or relating to the state; -cide, denoting a person, substance, action, thing that kills. Similar: genocide, extermination a working word and definition for continued dialogue by Talila "TL" Lewis, July 2020
This piece is an acknowledgement of our collective complex traumas—a naming of that which occurs after centuries of stolen, swinging, swollen Black bodies is followed by erasure of white supremacist violence and criminalization, pathologization, and monetization of Black people’s fights, runs and pleas for our lives.
This is a reframing and contextualization of the genesis of our [re]actions and a naming and affirmation of the [e]motions that Black people hold and release.
This is a chronicle of centuries of failed attempts to repress Black existence-resistance.
This is a revelation for some and a reclamation for others of Black humanity and an unapologetic celebration of Black existence, resistance, rebellion and liberation.
“Please don’t kill me, officers.”
“Sir, what I do?”
“I’m walking to my house. Why you harrassin me…I’m pregnant!”
“What are you following me for?”
“I can just go home. I have my daughters there right now.”
“All this for a failure to signal?!”
“Officer, I need help.”
“Ma, they gon kill me.”
“Officers, why do you have your guns out?”
“Why are you always harassin me?”
“Why did you shoot me?”
“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
“I’m an introvert. I’m just different… I have no gun… I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! . . . “
“Please don’t let me die.”
“You shot me! You shot me!”
“I dint even do nothing.”
“I don’t have a gun! Stop shooting!”
“Momma. . . they gon kill me . . . Please, sir. . . please, I can’t breathe. . . I’m about to die. Please. . . ”
“Sir, I’m not resisting. Sir, I can’t breathe. . . Please save me.”
”You promised you wouldn't kill me.”
“One of y’all, please come get me!”
“. . . I see my actions as a necessary evil that I do not wish to partake in, nor do I enjoy partaking in, but must partake in, in order to create substantial change within America's police force and judicial system.”
“. . . I see mothers bury their sons. I want my mom to never feel that pain.”
I just got off of work officer
I grew up in church officer
Loosen the cuffs for me, that shit kind of hurt officer
No question at all, you put my face in the dirt officer
Why it feel like death and like I'm 'bout to get murked officer?
I ain't packin' nothin', told that shit to the first officer
You stoppin' me 'cause you enjoyin' the perks officer?
Please let me go, my baby 'bout to give birth officer
Now you got yo' foot on my back and yo' heat on my head
Spit in my face, that's worse than puttin' feet on my bed
All for a quota, look how yo' people treat me for bread
Innocent man, so you shoot me and leave me for dead
. . .
That's how you gon' act boy?
Wish I had my strap boy!
Wish I knew that y'all be blackin' out 'cause I'm a Black boy
Black skin rappin' for the Blacks, you callin' that noise?
Point the gun at my head and then you tell me, act poised
. . .
Yo' gun out, and you shootin' 'cause I scared you?
Well if you get to shoot 'cause you scared, nigga I'm scared too!
Why we can't be equal homie?
Why my movie can't be long enough to see the sequel homie?
. . .
Damn, it's like how I'm s'posed to love y'all?
When all you do is act like no one is above y'all
And now I'm feelin' like how much do that love cost?
Instead of real love, it really feel like love lost
I'll die for my freedom, let's get real for it
It's what it's like when you Black, and you get killed for it
- JAG, 2018
There is a feeling.
It is a feeling that has yet to be named.
If you are Black in the united states, you likely know this feeling all too well. This feeling is our unconsented to companion. It is the feeling that comes from knowing that our lives are limited and our deaths assured by factors wholly outside of our control. There is a specific variant of this feeling related to police/vigilantes.
For some, it is a full body pause, heart palpitations and brain revs when we see a police officer or police cruiser lights behind us. It’s the release-of-terror breath we take when cops pass us by coupled with dis-ease we feel for whoever will actually have to encounter them. For many, it is a momentary terror when we hear police sirens on the radio and relief tinged with annoyance that a Black artist would be so insensitive as to invoke such a nerve-racking sound. For others, it is knots in our stomach when our teen gets into the car to head to school—part fear of car accidents but a large part fear of cop "incidents." For others it is an uncontainable panicked upset when our curious little children touch anything at a store. For others still, it is seething anger and a rage-filled resignation to the end--a preparation for inevitable dehumanizing and deadly encounters with police and all their attendant systems.
We internalize very early on that any and every encounter with a cop/vigilante could be our last, so we do everything and anything to increase our odds of survival by decreasing all opportunities for them to find reason to interrupt our lives. We are very clear that our conduct is not the determining factor of our survival.
In the face of white supremacist terror we can’t show strength or vulnerability, fear or calm, confidence or desperation, humor and wit, or confusion, even. What remains of us then? The mythical hulking horror white supremacist imaginations dream us to be. Figments of their imaginations paint us as black devils and them as saviors of whitekind.
We are not human in the wild imaginations of the “law” and nothing can change this. Not age, circumstance, response, upbringing, degrees earned, “talks” had, respect ingrained or offered. Nothing.
It is a vicious cycle. They execute us so often that we can’t keep pace. We witness our murders for generations—each generation enduring its own unique brand of Black death as sport and spectacle. We educate our children about the high probability of being murdered for behaving normally, responding normally, being themselves. We teach our children to dissociate just to get home safely—to fight their rational and reasonable responses to white supremacist abuse, terror and violence. Their and our anxiety and hypervigilance increase. Our ability to put our natural responses aside decreases as the terror of knowing that our fate is in ruthless blood-stained hands increases. If somehow our lifelong training is overhauled by our natural instincts, we get blamed for the gruesome, bloody aftermath. If we are able to heed our lifelong trainings and still end up dead, we are blamed for our deaths still.
We can’t win and every part of us knows it.
There is something perverse, pathological and unspeakably inhumane about a society that requires an entire group of people to dissociate just to survive.
White supremacy, anti-Black racism, and racial terror—which includes but is not limited to police/vigilante violence and terror—has led to generations of unnamed racism-based stress and trauma. This racism-based stress and trauma leads to and exacerbates anxiety, depression, heart conditions, and countless other disabilities. This feeling, if felt by people cloaked in whiteness, would be validated, named a “disability,” and accommodated. But this feeling has no name precisely because we live in a society where Black humanity is denied, Black emotions dismissed, Black pain and terror discredited.
This feeling kills us slow while white ships, whips, nooses, chains, displacement, extraction, exploitation, experiments, hospitals, neglect, ego, rage and triggers kill us fast. Meanwhile, society continues to question those of us who run or “resist” while ignoring the mental, emotional, physical and social burden Black people carry due to unyielding state violence against Black peoples. It is exceedingly rare to find a Black person in the united states who does not have this experience, these feelings.
Black people in the united states have always experienced Perpetual Traumatic Racism Based Stress. This is not a disorder. It is the ordered, legitimate and objectively reasonable response to centuries of virulent anti-Black racism.
The state uses our rational response to generations of its terror to justify our deaths and executions. In the context of modern police/vigilante violence, viral lynching videos also help enshrine the disregard and disrespect shown to our loved ones in their final moments.
Murderer always made victim.
Victim always made menace.
Murderers always excused.
Victims always condemned.
Our legitimate chronic fear of deprivation of life and freedom leads to near-constant vigilance, stress and anxiety. Our psychological, emotional, spiritual and physical selves can’t help but be adversely affected as they work triple over time to save us.
Mommas been cryin' and they gon' keep cryin'
Black folk been dyin' and they gon' keep dyin'
Police been firin' and they gon' keep firin'
The government been lyin' and they gon' keep lyin'
Propaganda news channels, that shit is all for show
Camera phone videos is like all we know
Diluting what an eye witness might really say
Because the whole world saw a murder yesterday
Now your account ain't what it used to be
According to them your eyes can't adjust to the violence you ain't used to seein
Police brutality is all in your mind
And the tactics that they use only look worse in rewind
And people die everyday, you should get used to it
Hands behind yo' back, face down, and still say you shootin'
Knee where your neck be like why you movin'?
Kids in your car, headed home, like what you doin'?
Like why you chillin'? Fuck yo' feelin's!
Why you smilin' when I'm so serious?
I hate patrollin your space, like why you livin'?
Stop asking questions! why you filmin'?
You look suspicious! I think you dealin'!
Step out the car! fit the description!
Someone I fear! I need to kill it!
Blood on the curb, I need to spill it!
Nother civilian, 'nother not guilty!
Nother T-shirt, 'nother rap lyric!
Nother life gone, I can't forgive it!
- Big K.R.I.T., 2016
Police/vigilantes are encouraged, empowered and armed and licensed to kill us. They have no composure, discernment, empathy, decency or humanity; and we always “fit the description”—especially since they can’t tell us apart and Black people are apparently always guilty—but we are expected to be submissive and docile just to be murdered and blamed still. They pull the “feared for my life” card from the white supremacist playbook after every ambush, every lynching, every “police involved incident.”
Illegitimate white fear and unprovoked white violence generate legitimate black terror. Still, objectively unreasonable fears asserted by cops/vigilantes are always deemed adequate justification for our executions while Black people’s objectively reasonable terror is mocked or not even noticed or named. The state encourages, sanctions and participates in our murders, gives us directives on how we should respond to this violence and punishes us when we supposedly “step out of line.” This, while the “law” criminalizes legitimate Black terror and invites contrived white supremacist “fears” to operate as justification for Black executions.
We fear their guns, tasers, batons, cruisers, rough rides, knees.
We fear their immunity, impunity and insolence.
We fear our lives becoming marginally important only in the spectacle of our horrific deaths.
We fear this “incident” being caught on camera and also fear it not.
We fear their imagination which creates a version of ourselves we have never known.
We fear joining our ancestors who were stolen from their loved ones much too often and much too soon.
We fear exploitation of our communities’ righteous rage and our families’ interminable grief.
We fear our parents, partners, siblings, children dying of broken hearts.
We fear the conundrum they create:
We stay, we die.
We comply, we die.
We run, we die.
We fight, we die.
We breathe, we die.
We Black, we die.
Our loved ones’ survival depends entirely on the whim of people indoctrinated and empowered by a system and society steeped in violent anti-Blackness—and our skin is Black. Our breath depends not on what we do or say, or whether we “comply” even.
Generations of unrepentant racial violence, deprivation and terror. 400 years and we still cannot freely exist, move or breathe. How many generations of “the talk” before the world accepts that white supremacist terror and its attendant systems have sufficiently terrorized us?
Some things are so violent that they trigger physiological responses for Black people who have experienced, learned of, or witnessed their terror. Police are chief among these for many Black people in this era. Because of their past and present terror, their mere presence and existence is a form of violence. A few other examples:
Each of these affects some Black people in ways that they do not affect others based on myriad factors. When encountering these violent systems/symbols, some experience mind fogs and are unable to process information or move, while others’ bodies disconnect from our minds making the lifelong lessons from our elders feel like a far off fairy tale. Some become even more hyper vigilant and do not do anything more or less than they perceive they are being asked while others engage in nervous banter. Others spring into action to fight to the death for life. For others still, before we can do anything about it, our legs have carried our body one place while our mind is still with the police.
Whatever our response, the immediate anxious awareness of danger that Black people feel during interactions with “law enforcement” is perfectly reasonable regardless of the officers’ behavior with whom we are interacting.
Our responses are an amalgamation of over 400 years of memories, stories, postcards and videos of terror. But when cloaked in Black skin, the most common/human fear, stress, anxiety and trauma responses seem only to engender execution even when they are wholly rational. White supremacy continues its long and violent tradition of dispossession—stealing not only our lives and ability to live freely, but also stealing the history, trauma, feelings and disabilities that abused and traumatized Black people should be able to use to explain our [e]motions.
Oppression makes a wise man mad. . . . What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim . . .
- Frederick Douglass, 1852
White supremacy removes the context of the conditions in which we live and survive while hyper contextualizing—often dramatizing—experiences of white power holders. To add insult to our injuries, this white supremacist hyper-contextualization/dramaturgy often occurs by theft of the legitimate emotions of maimed and murdered Black/Indigenous peoples. Those legitimate emotions are denied or stolen by power holders to then be used to justify the murder of marginalized people. They “feared for their lives” but they had the nooses, hounds, horses, trucks, guns, tanks and power.
The united states has a sordid and storied history of criminalizing and deeming “insane” Black people’s natural and rational responses to the violence and terror wrought upon us by its power holders—white colonial imperialists with a particular penchant for unspeakable violence. Black self defense and resistance to white supremacist terror has been and continues to be labeled “violence,” “crime” and “insanity,” among other made up things. Here are some examples:
Erasure of the genesis of trauma responses and disabilities in Black minds, bodies, and communities perpetuate inequities and exacerbate and justify violence as seen in the examples above. Pointed critiques of white supremacy never surface. Instead Black people are gaslit and our rational responses to white supremacist terror are criminalized and pathologized.
Black people’s insatiable longings for life and freedom have always been problematized, diagnosed, shamed, criminalized and brutally punished. Meanwhile, the cyclical and diabolical white supremacist violence we endure has not only been normalized, but has been hailed for “our benefit” and monetized—see enslavement, lynchings, black codes, jim crow, eugenics, human experimentation and zoos, institutionalization, incarceration, labor exploitation, and so on, and so forth.
White supremacy has gained and maintained its foothold by and through enacting violence then strategically classifying exploited and harmed people into categories of deviant/delinquent, defective/disabled, and dependent. White supremacist systems maintain economic, political, social power by pitting exploited groups against one another and by convincing the public that each exploited group is deserving of continued violence because they belong to these constructed categories.
Consider the following examples and note that the treatment/cure/punishment for each of these is yet more violence not a remedying of material conditions that would make the actions taken by Black people to love, find, free and protect our own unnecessary:
The united states government has always used ideas about disability, delinquency and dependency, intertwined with constructed ideas about race to classify, criminalize, cage and disappear its “undesirables.” While the disability labels society attaches to Black people often are constructed or inaccurate, Black people do have disabilities in our minds, bodies and communities that have gone unnamed, uncounted, and unsupported for generations. This must change.
“All my life I been sick and tired. Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. . . . there's so much hypocrisy in this society and if we want America to be a free society we have to stop telling lies, that's all. Because we're not free and you know we're not free. . . . And you can always hear this long sob story: ‘You know it takes time.’ For three hundred years, we've given them time. . . and we want a change. . . . But this is something we going to have to learn to do and quit saying that we are free in America when I know we are not free. You are not free in Harlem. The people are not free in Chicago, because I've been there, too. They are not free in Philadelphia, because I've been there, too. And when you get it over with all the way around, some of the places is a Mississippi in disguise. And we want a change. . . . ”
- Fannie Lou Hamer, 1964
Disability is commonly understood through a white and wealth privileged lens. This perspective does not do justice to the complex reasons or ways that disability exists, arises in and is expressed through Black peoples’ bodies and minds. White mainstream disability rights communities operate within a rigid definition and understanding of disability—often refusing to acknowledge and honor Black disabled people due to racism, classism and ableism, among other things. This, while Black communities often hold internalized ableism due to generations of anti-black disability labels being imposed upon us that make us much more vulnerable to violence once identified as disabled.
The institutions, systems and structures we have been surviving and resisting through and that we still are up against are disabling by design (see noircraticide and Perpetual Traumatic Racism Based Stress above). Our disabilities and our disability responses have held, kept and saved us for generations. Our individual and collective experiences have led to interdependence, innovation and a quiet ultra-endurance that is at once a blessing and a curse.
A deep study of our histories reveal critically important connections—real and constructed—between ableism, racism, classism, and every other form of systemic oppression. Here are some truths that can serve as a starting place to learning more about race and disability, racism and ableism:
If we want to understand, hold, heal and save Black communities, we must understand the inextricable links between disability and other marginalized identities and uproot ableism from our communities.
As it turns out, the “cure” for drapetomania was freedom--abolition of enslavement. The prescription for running and “resisting”, etc., is necessarily the same--abolition of the entire carceral system--with large doses of reparations for Black people.
White supremacists created a legal system under the guise of justice that has served as cover for white supremacist greed and bloodlust. Their system has never criminalized or pathologized white supremacist violence but has always punished perpetually oppressed people’s efforts to survive. Their system has monetized and validated institutions that benefit from our suffering and destruction. By now we know that we cannot arrest, indict, or convict our way out of white supremacist violence--not even the white supremacist violence their legal system inflicts.
Indeed, justice and this “country” owes Black people a great deal more than the moldy morsels this legal system has to offer. Punitive, retributive, carceral "justice" is not healing, loving, holistic, reparative. It leaves our communities in ruin--our loved ones still disappeared, our hearts still in shambles, our people still in chains. This legal system invites white terror to rage on.
We must demand what we deserve. We deserve reparations. We deserve to live and thrive. We deserve relief from all manner of violence and insecurities thrust upon us by this nation. We deserve the quiet enjoyment of our lives. We deserve boring deaths of natural causes. We deserve all of this and so much more. Yet these are things that we have never collectively had.
They must tell the truth about the grotesque and irredeemable past and present of this “nation” if oppressed peoples are to ever achieve any semblance of justice. Justice for each of us is different. For now, I would venture that we all would like some very basic things in the immediate, like:
All we wanna do is take the chains off.
All we wanna do is break the chains off. yeah.
All we wanna do is be free.
All we wanna do is be free.
All we wanna do is take these chains off. yeah.
All we wanna do is break these chains off. yeah.
All we wanna do is be free.
All we wanna do is be free.
- J. Cole, 2014
Many people in america are celebrating “freedom” today, July 4, 2020. For many Black people, however, today is a cruel reminder that despite our ancestors having paid debts they never owed for freedom, we are paying on those unowed dues still. Our freedom has still not materialized and we must continue this difficult but necessary struggle.
We are not yet fully free, but we believe--as our ancestors did--that freedom is on the horizon.
We must keep freedom alive in our hearts--just as our ancestors did for us. We will find and hold on to hope and be bold in our demands for a new world order.
As we dream and fight for a world that is worthy of our children and theirs, remember:
Love is our relentless pursuit of real-life dreams and outer limits exist only if we accept them as real.
Freedom first takes root in our visions for a radically just space-time continuum; and triumph is earned when others slip into our envisioned realm of justice and stay awhile—at least until time, space, or both catch up.
Liberation is conceived by our imagination, carried in our hearts, and birthed through Black revolutionary madness.
This is an ode to the runners, a requiem for the fighters.
We see you and we feel your humanity still.
We love and honor you.
We will keep running toward and fighting for freedom.
We will continue the struggle so we can all find rest.
Thank you for showing us the way.
As my and our collective understanding of ableism is ever-evolving, I hope to offer periodic edits to the working definition of ableism I released in 2019. You can review the 2021 updated definition here.
This year's definition, I edited for length and clarity. It also names colonialism as central to the construction, conception and application of ableism, and also more explicitly acknowledges reproductive in/justice and productivity. Finally, the image explicitly names my work and conversations with Black and other negatively racialized Disabled people including, Dustin Gibson, as having been important to my understanding of ableism and development of this working definition.
My study and discussion of imperialism and its relationship to ableism is ongoing. . .
Image Description: Brown square with the following words in white and yellow: ABLEISM a·ble·ism \ ˈābə-ˌli-zəm \ noun A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence and productivity. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, colonialism and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s appearance and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel and "behave." You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism. a working definition by Talila "TL" Lewis in conversation with Disabled Black and other negatively racialized folk, especially Dustin Gibson; updated January 2020
I dream incessantly of justice. Hoping to calm my mind & stir yours through this freedom space.