This post serves to provide context, clarity and grounding for my February 19, 2019 Longmore Lecture at San Francisco State University, Stolen Bodies, Criminalized Minds & Diagnosed Dissent: The Racist, Classist, Ableist Trappings Of The Prison Industrial Complex.
Content warning: genocide, enslavement, eugenics, racist/ableist slurs, and various other forms of violence. Please exercise discretion.
By design, most people living on the stolen land known to many as the “United States” have not learned much at all about this nation’s violent and sordid history. Specifically, there is very little, if any, study of or engagement with past or current U.S. genocides, enslavement, wars, institutionalization, incarceration, or other atrocities. True depictions of the horrors that perpetually oppressed and terrorized peoples on this land experience are, for the most part, intentionally discredited, hidden away and undercut. Narratives that surface in their place are much more genteel renditions of the grotesque and irredeemable truth of the history of this nation. This “violence void” makes it difficult for U.S. inhabitants to process information related to U.S. history. In this way, violent U.S. history is invited to continue to form and inform violent U.S. present and future.
My Longmore Lecture was an attempt to fill this void--to bring U.S. past and present into conversation with one of the oldest, most pervasive, and least understood systemic oppressions the world has ever known, ableism.
Captioned video of my lecture is available here; and the transcript here. Due to the short length of the lecture, there was a great deal that could not be shared or that may be easily taken out of context. This brief article lays out key points and clarification; and provides important context and takeaways that may have been missed by lecturer, receiver, or both. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list and is not listed in any particular order:
Image of a black square with white writing in it that says: 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 and excellence. These constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence and excellence are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable or worthy based on people's appearance and/or their ability to satisfactorily produce, excel & “behave.” Importantly, you do not have to be disabled to experience ableism. a working definition by Talila "TL" Lewis
-Fugitive Slave Acts
*Black people were forbade from moving/migrating, reading, writing, assembling, voting, marrying, possessing anything (including their own children), and much more, by law.
-work stoppages by enslaved Black people - “dysatheia atheopica” or “rascality”
-Protecting self or another from police brutality - “resisting”/“obstructing"/"interfering"
-Resisting restraint and seclusion - “excited delirium”
-Protesting murder of our children - “rioting”
-Ships (see quote from Longmore Lecture for context)
-Prisons & asylums
-Shackles & restraint chairs
(Each of these violences affect some people in ways that they do not affect others.)
Disability Ain’t for Ya Dozens (or Demons): 10 Ableist Phrases Black Folks Should Retire Immediately
Black and white drawing of a ship packed tightly with Black African people. The words read: Plan shewing the stowage of 130 additional slaves round the wings or sides of the lower deck by means of platforms or shelves (in the manner of galleries in a church) the slaves stowed on the shelves and below them have only a height of 2 feet 7 inches between the beams and far less under the beams.
Black folks of the African Diaspora in the “United States” got jokes for days.
Humor, wit, rhymin’ & signifyin,’ and all around hyper-creative silliness is part and parcel of Black Joy, Black Culture, Black Resistance and Black Love.
May our humor never abandon us; nor us it.
That said, on this last day of February 2017, I am writing to implore my community to be more mindful of our ableism for the rest of this year and in all the years that meet us — even as we battle for our crowns.
I begin with the most basic of affirmations:
Black Disabled people exist.
Black Autistic people exist.
Black Deaf people exist.
Black DeafBlind people exist.
Black Mad people exist.
Black Depressed people exist.
Black Chronically Ill people exist.
Black Veterans with PTSD exist.
Black Youth with CPTSD exist.
Racism and intergenerational trauma exist; and thus so too do Black Disabled Descendents of enslaved African peoples.
I begin here for three reasons:
Ableism in our communities takes many forms. Let’s see, there’s:
Ableism as religious retribution, absolution or abomination.
Ableism as pity.
Ableism as disgust.
Ableism as “weakness.”
Ableism as inspiration.
Ableism as “actin’ up.”
Ableism as “actin’ out.”
Ableism as euphemism.
Ableism as “disrespectful.”
Ableism as bars, wordplay & punchline.
All of these are dehumanizing and deadly; and each perpetuates racism and anti-Black violence in ways that you probably have never considered. But we must.
Anti-Blackness and ableism are inextricably linked in large part because “intelligence” was manufactured by racist-ableist eugenicists, and in other large part because capitalism and elitism have only served to solidify this mythical notion and its related perceived white superiority and Black inferiority in the hearts and minds of even those of us who know it to be false.
Here is what I know to be true:
Violent uprooting of African bodies from African communities was disabling; the Middle Passage was disabling; theft of our native tongue(s) was disabling; every aspect of enslavement was disabling; white terror was and is disabling; Jim Crow was disabling; forced sterilization is disabling; breaking your children before the cops get a chance to is disabling; unyielding fear for loved ones’ safety is disabling; forced familial separation (including mass incarceration) is disabling; forced institutionalization (including mass incarceration) is disabling; racism is disabling; generational exploitation of our bodies, intellect and resources is disabling; forced housing, income, water, food insecurity is disabling. Importantly, before all of this, there were Black Disabled people.
Although anti-Blackness and white supremacy have made many believe that Black Disabled/Deaf people don’t exist and that there is something dishonorable about the existence of Black Deaf/Disabled people, neither could be further from the truth.
The Truth is that disability has been with us, in us since the beginning of time. Disability has held and kept us. It is in our marrow, in our blood, our sweat and tears. Disability does not make us less than, it makes us who we are.
Ableism and anti-Blackness are the enemy.
Disability is our kin.
While the world has convinced itself and the Black community that disability is a bad word and a bad circumstance. It is neither. Disability and Blackness is pride. Disability and Blackness is innovation. Disability and Blackness is brilliance.
Disability and Blackness are part of the identities and lives of most of the Black community in the “United States.” This is why true liberation calls for a certain kind of dismantling that leaves neither oppression untouched.
This brings me back to the theme of this piece: Regardless of the type of ableism you espouse, your ableism is anti-Black and violent. So when we support ableism, we also are supporting anti-Blackness; and vice versa.
The Black community is well known for our jovial nature, our tendency to use words that we think are less demeaning for family members and relatives with disabilities, and for invoking religion in response to revelations. Turns out that none of this uplifts our people’s humanity. Not only does it contribute to stigma and discrimination against Black/Disabled people, but these make it that much more difficult for Black people to be loved, cherished and at peace within our own communities. Moreover, it perpetuates the violent oppression visited upon us by white people.
What we know is that people with disabilities are disproportionately represented in Black, brown and indigenous communities. We also know that Black Disabled people are disproportionately represented in suspensions, expulsions and arrests in schools; forced institutionalization; mass incarceration; and and police violence.
Our words, thoughts and intentions carry weight. We must take care not to contribute to stigmatization, discrimination, isolation, incarceration and genocide of Black/Disabled people.
Below are some of the phrases that I hope we all will retire today with helpful links to guide you on your journey to understanding disability justice as racial justice:
1. “Special,” Special needs, special cousin, special anything.
There is no such thing as “normal” and no such thing as “special needs.” There is just interdependence. Read more from the late Ki’tay D. Davidson, who said "We are all interdependent. The difference between the needs that many disabled people have and the needs of those who are not labeled as disabled is that non-disabled people have had their need normalized."
2. Handicapable, Differently-abled, diffability, mentally challenged, etc.
Contrary to popular belief, not saying the words disabled/deaf/autistic/wheelchair user/etc. is offensive. Euphemisms are harmful and disrespectful. They presume that disability is inferior. It is not. Read more from Meriah Nichols.
3. Slow, dumb, stupid, idiot, imbecile, r*etarded, etc.
These words are rooted in racist-ableist violence and should never ever be used. Read more from Lydia X. Z. Brown.
4. Disease is not your metaphor, hook or jab.
You can be witty and funny without perpetuating ableism. Try it out sometime. Read more from Cyree Jarelle Johnson.
5. Hearing impaired, they do that hand stuff, etc.
The proper terms are Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled and Hard of Hearing. Sign language, or, if you are referencing a specific sign language, use the name of that language: American Sign Language; Lensegua, etc. See/read more in Indian Sign Language from Alim Chandani.
6. Cray; cray cray; crazy; insane; etc.
Annually over 50% of the people killed by cops are people with psychiatric disabilities (these victims are disproportionately Black and people of color). These kinds of words are not funny and they further stigmatize people with mental illnesses — who more often than not are the victims, not perpetrators, of violence. Read more from the Harriet Tubman Collective.
7. That ain’t nothing but the devil; that depression is a demon, fast and pray about it; I’ll pray for you to be delivered from . . . ; he is just testing you; be in the word, etc.
This is dangerous and deadly. Stop it. Read more from Darnell Moore, also review the #BlackSuicide on Twitter.
8. Suffering from . . .
People are not “suffering from” disability/deafness. People are simply autistic, disabled, deaf, etc. Don’t place value judgments on other people’s existence. People could be living with a specific disability, but you are not free to declare disabled folks to be “suffering from” anything. This goes back to honoring the whole humanity of all of us. Please take some time over the next year to learn more about disability pride, deaf pride, disability justice, disability solidarity, etc.
9. Crackhead, drunk uncle, etc.
Addiction is a disability. People with addiction disorders/disability need support & love, not ridicule. Learn more.
10. Any other ableist puns, jokes or religious phraseology.
This is your free space. It’s here so you can fill it with any other terms that are ableist, audist, sanist, etc. & stop using them.
May we be more generous with unconditional love, more affirming of disability and all manner of identity intersections found in Black communities; and may we mind our words and reign in our own violent words and actions to honor and protect our own.
Emmett Till & the Pervasive Erasure of Disability In Conversations about White Supremacy & Police Violence
Content Warning: Discussion of white supremacist violence & police brutality.
Today, I answer Eve Ewing’s early morning call to “honestly reckon with history.” I will name and address one issue in brief and earnest because revisionist history and disability erasure will be the death of countless more if we do not answer this call.
In August of 1955, white supremacists kidnapped, tortured and murdered Emmett Louis Till after a white woman claimed that Till whistled at her. A jury required less than one hour to come back with a “not guilty” verdict. This week, more than sixty years since Emmett Till’s mutilated fourteen year old body was pulled from the muddy Tallahatchie River, the woman who concocted the story that led to Emmett Till’s murder finally confessed that she lied. Her “revelation” has caused a flurry of discussions and articles about white supremacy and police violence — which are in the United States, forever inextricably linked.
For many, it is impossible to ignore the parallels between this case, its outcome, and countless recent cases involving law enforcement murdering young people (often on camera) with no consequence. Many Disabled/Deaf community builders continue to warn that the failure to approach these discussions with a disability justice lens — understanding, discussing and addressing the real and deadly links between racism, ableism, white supremacy and police violence — will lead to more death.
Countless survivors and victims of white terror and police brutality were targeted because of their race, disability, class and other identities. Anyone who says otherwise is not being honest about the history and longevity of ableism, racism, classism in this “nation.” That, or perhaps they are unclear about how each of those oppressions is woven into the fabric of white supremacy and how each undergirds the other.
So intertwined are these oppressions that any attempt to rid the nation of racism without doing away with ableism yields practically nothing. The same is true in reverse. Disabled communities attempting to rid the nation of ableism find themselves having made very little headway because they are still practicing racism.
In fact, for the past several years, more than half of those killed by “law enforcement” in the United States have been disabled/deaf individuals. This group of victims is also comprised disproportionately of Black, Indigenous, Latinx people and people from other marginalized communities including low/no income and trans communities. Many have written about the alarmingly disproportionate representation of disabled people of color in statistics ranging from suspensions to state-sanctioned executions. And yet we continue to thoughtlessly erase their identities — and thus their humanity.
By this I mean that narratives shared by people of color (including “social justice activists”) about disabled victims of white terror and police brutality who also are of color erase Disability/Deafness and other aspects of these individuals’ identities. These intersections are precisely what made these victims prime targets for violence. Similarly, the narratives shared about these victims by the vast majority of disabled people (including “disability/deaf rights activists”) erase Blackness/indigeneity altogether — again ignoring the very intersection of these individuals’ identities that made them susceptible to this violence in the first place.
Although society has a tendency to erase the Disability of Black Disabled people (See, Audre Lorde, Barbara Jordan, Brad Lomax, Darnell Wicker, Eric Garner, Fannie Lou Hamer, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Harry Belafonte, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Jazzie Collins, Jesse Washington, Keith Lamont Scott, Korryn Gaines, Laquan McDonald, Maya Angelou, Sandra Bland, Simone Biles, Wilma Rudolph, Whoopi Goldberg, and countless others), studies show that disability is more prevalent in communities of color and low/no income communities — in large part because of the ways that racism and classism operate.
If you are not aware, please note that Black Disabled/Deaf people take pride in Blackness, Disability and Deafness just the same; and none of these identities should ever be erased.
Now for a bit of pertinent U.S. history (I actually refer to U.S. history as race-disability history):
Polio was far-reaching in the United States from the early to mid-1900's. Notably, polio medical and rehabilitation centers during the same time were segregated by race; and eugenicists described polio as a “white disease” that Black people could not contract (these are the same eugenicists who created scientific racism-ableism). Since polio did not discriminate like those who craft the policies of this nation, Black people who contracted or survived polio were not provided adequate medical care or rehabilitation support. Black organizers ensured an increase in the visibility of Black polio survivors which spurred philanthropic and institutional support for medical and rehabilitative support for Black people with polio; and Tuskegee Institute opened its polio center in the 1940's. Numerous people have written about this particular chapter of medical/scientific racism-ableism, so I will not delve any further.
I introduce this only to share with some and to remind others that Emmett Till, survived a bout of polio. Like many survivors, he experienced post-polio symptoms that affected his daily life activities. In his case, he acquired a speech disability that stayed with him until his death. His mother, Mamie Till, recounted having taught him different techniques, including whistling, to clear his passage and speak through his speech disability — which was more pronounced when he was nervous or in particularly stressful situations. His mother and cousins also maintain that Emmett Till struggled with certain letters and his pronunciation sometimes actually sounded like a whistle.
We also know that Emmett Till was outgoing and funny. He was full of jokes, pranks and smiles — always trying to make those around him laugh, his cousins and friends report. He was so good at telling jokes that people would pay him to tell jokes. Stories shared by those who knew him for his very brief lifetime remind me so much of other Black Disabled youth who, with all that is in them, try not to allow our racist-ableist society to steal their joy. Alas, white supremacy has a cruel way of dealing with our Black Disabled children — specially those who try their utmost to live fully & freely.
Post-murder, these children are regarded as “hulk-like,” “towering,” “incapable of feeling pain,” “menacing,” and “dangerously noncompliant,” among other adjectives. The hyper-fetishized stories spun by “concerned neighbors” and “vigilant[e] neighborhood watchmen” are so out of touch with reality that these children’s family members would not recognize the child if the story were to somehow come to life. Unfortunately, the legal system, like society, is mired in racism and ableism, so prosecutors, judges, juries, and yes, even defense attorneys, often buy into the myth that a Black Disabled child could become superhuman and inhuman all at once. We convince ourselves that these children are not deserving of laughter, liberty and life and sit idly by while they are abused and murdered with reckless abandon (by the state, no less).
Race and Disability. The most dangerous intersection history has ever held. All that seems to exists there is violence, erasure and murder with impunity.
The truth is that it is exceedingly rare to find a victim or survivor of violence who was targeted for just one part of their identity. Past and present victims of white terror and police violence were/are more often than not multiply-marginalized. Therefore, any conversation about their murder that does not recognize and honor their multiple identities dishonors them through and through. We actually deal a heavy blow to our own liberation struggles when we engage in this kind of violent erasure.
This is why disability solidarity is critical for our collective liberation.
Image of a tweet by Harriet Tubman Collective (@HTCSolidarity) on 22 January 2017: “Folks, let’s not tack #DisabilitySolidarity onto our tweets while practicing racism. Disability solidarity is about #intersectionaljustice.”For a full image descriptions of the three infographics click this link.
Disability solidarity means that we are all advancing intersectional justice — that Disabled folks are working hard to achieve racial justice, economic justice, gender justice; and Black folks are holding ourselves accountable for disability justice, immigrant justice, indigenous justice, etc. Disability solidarity means the folks fighting for racial justice and disability justice are one and the same. In this way, no one is left behind.
Disability solidarity encapsulates the lived experience of Emmett Till and millions of Disabled youth of color living at the intersection he once occupied. These are the youth who continue to be profiled, criminalized, and killed for existing. They deserve to have their whole humanity affirmed. Disability solidarity saves lives and makes room for laughter, love and freedom at an intersection that does not have to continue to be the most dangerous intersection that we’ve ever held.
Disability solidarity honors our ancestors; affirms our present struggles and gives credence to dreams of our children — born & yet unborn.
It is high time for a reckoning with this nation’s sordid history. Ableism, racism, classism and white supremacy is a damn good place to start.
NOTE: Yes. The white woman lied. However, disability is still critically important to understanding this narrative. Disability and negative racialization combine to make it easier to be killed because to white supremacists and the State, Black Disabled people will always be less worthy of life than Black abled people and than non-Black Disabled people. As such people living at this particular intersection are at highest risk of active and passive murder by everyone.
I want to believe in peace. I want to believe we can unlearn violence & affirm our interdependency. I dream of a community of lovers, who navigate pain, joy, laughter and grief together, collectively & with care; experiencing endless beauty. I think I am dreaming of a modern day heaven, or perhaps I am dreaming of the good we were meant to be. Ki'tay Davidson, Why I Quit Philanthropy Dark rectangle with the above quote and a photo of Ki'tay during a presentation to disabled youth. Ki’tay is smiling with an open mouth and snapping in celebration of a great comment by an audience member while facilitating a Disability History, Culture, and Pride workshop for youth with disabilities during the summer of 2014. Ki'tay is holding a microphone in his left hand and snapping with his right. He is wearing a black shirt, orange pants and a faux leather black hat turned backwards.
[Please note that this written version of Ki'tay's eulogy does not reflect some of the spontaneous additions made during its presentation. Other notes: Immediately prior to presenting this eulogy, I opened by centering the space by sharing Ki’tay’s name sign (*heart touch with the eight finger*) that was given by a Deaf individual & asking participants to collectively uplift names/name signs of those who are no longer physically with us. I also acknowledged that I would be switching between tenses because I had not quite figured out this whole thing.]
Saturday, December 13, 2014
Orland Park, Illinois
What an incredible honor.
I am so very humbled, grateful and honored to be counted among those who know and love Ki’tay D. Davidson. My name is Talila A. Lewis--sign name and chosen name, TL. Ki’tay is my life partner, my mentee, my mentor, my dearest friend, and the one who showed me precisely what the meaning of love is.
It is solely because of Ki’tay that the theme of this day & of the rest of my eternity is: Love Wins.
We come together today, not only to celebrate the life & legacy of a beautiful human being who embodied everything that active love is, but also to learn about those who may come from different communities & yet be just as human as you--to learn how to affirm, love and fight with and for them. In doing so, we will love ourselves more deeply and move the world faster toward collective justice & liberation--the world that Ki’tay dreamed of and fought for with all of his being and all of his heart.
There is a quote by the poet Rumi that reminds me deeply of Ki’tay & helps me understand precisely how many of us feel in this moment about his loss. It’s a question and an answer--which is how most who truly knew him remember Ki’tay: Dialogue. Interdependence centered always.
The quote is as follows:
"My heart is so small . . . it's almost invisible. How can you place such big sorrows in it?"
"Look," he answered, " your eyes are even smaller, yet they behold the world."
Ki’tay was a lot of things to a lot of people, organizations & institutions:
While Ki’tay’s work, what he stood for, and how he transformed all of these people and entities can never be encapsulated in any language, what we can be sure of is that they will forever be changed for the better because of his existence and sacrifice.
Many here may have met Ki’tay but aren’t familiar with who he is or what he stood for. Allow me to share a bit about him with you:
Ki’tay is a Revolutionary dreamer, leader and lover. One who prized people, prioritized love & propelled action by empowering all.
Last year, for example he was awarded a prestigious White House award, honoring his contributions as a “Champion of Change” for his transformative advocacy & activism with and for multiply-marginalized people with disabilities. Upon being named the Champion of Change, he penned an open letter to the community saying this, in part:
I challenge the extent to which we place the responsibility for advocacy on those designated as leaders or “champions.” Advocacy is not just a task for charismatic individuals or high profile community organizers. Advocacy is for all of us; advocacy is a way of life. It is a natural response to the injustices and inequality in the world. While you and I may not have sole responsibility for these inequities that does not alter its reality.
Today I am thankful. I am thankful for every ally and individual working, struggling and fighting to make this world a better place--thankful to any and everybody who realizes that this world is bigger than themselves, and who channels that awareness to “level the playing field.” These are people who can acknowledge their privilege and opportunity, and consciously and intentionally use their existence to transform communities...I may have earned a prestigious award, but today it is not really about me. It is about the community and I am simply a singular representative of thousands of people who give their hearts and their time to living a life of transformation. Thank you to all the champions who came before me, to those I have met, and to those who I have yet to meet. Thanks to those champions who have encouraged, listened, affirmed, fought and loved, alongside our beautiful community. Together, we have made change and will continue to make change. There are many chains that need to be broken. We all know it. I support you and welcome you to hold me accountable as we hold all of ourselves accountable to facilitating inclusive and loving environments for all.
These are what I have come to call Ki’tay’s truths.
Ki’tay found innovative ways to speak to injustice in many different contexts—from racism, transphobia, ableism, to discrimination against incarcerated persons and people with a history of incarceration. Indeed, he possessed courage of his convictions. It could be said; and it is true, that many people possess this trait.
However, it was Ki'tay's ability to sit with and actively love oppressors and those who were violent toward him and marginalized communities—most often solely because they do not adhere to that which has been deemed “normal”—that truly set him apart. He could breathe life and love into even those people within mere moments of making their acquaintance. This is what makes him special—reminiscent of what some here may call a prophet; others, a wise man; others still, a light or sage.
He was grounded in love. Always.
Ki’tay did not feign to know all of the answers to the problems of the world, but he prided himself on always learning and evolving to address injustices. Those who know him will tell you that rarely a day went by that he was not researching and sending research to others on issues that most of us could not even begin to understand. When confused about the content, we were not chided or insulted for not knowing, but affirmed for our interest and ability to challenge ourselves. He could explain the most abstract and nuanced concepts with elegance and pith such that all you could do was smile and shake your head after having struggled for days--sometimes weeks--to digest the content.
This was Ki’tay’s love language. Community-centered learning, growth, activism and healing.
He was frequently caught quoting the famed Assata Shakur:
It is our duty to fight. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.
He has understood since, well, birth it seems [Ki'tay's mother had just shared some stories about his struggles for justice as a toddler and young child], that we can not remain silent about injustice against any group of people, be they black, disabled, indigenous, gender nonconforming, trans, homeless, sex workers, incarcerated persons, and the list continues. He understood that each individual group’s liberation was inextricably linked to the other--that justice & liberation could only be had if we all stand together and fight for the rights and liberties of the next individual or community. He understood that we are free when we use our freedom to advance the rights of all members of our community; or as Nelson Mandela put it, “to be free is not just casting off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
It was his visceral yearning for universal equality, solidarity & collective activism that explains Ki’tay's immense joy with the recent collective creation of #DisabilitySolidarity with Allie Cannington and myself. Disability Solidarity has been the impetus behind groups fighting for disability justice to dedicate themselves to racial justice and for non disability civil rights organizations to dedicate themselves to disability justice.
On October 17th, I sent Ki’tay an email for which he expressed sincere gratitude. The short email was a quote from the Dalai Lama, who, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, said this:
Man surprises me most about humanity.
Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money.
Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.
And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present;
the result being that he does not live in the present or the future;
he lives as if he is never going to die,
and then dies having never really lived.
One thing Ki’tay did do was live fully. Another was consciously ignore the vanity that pervades our culture. He found the beauty in everything natural. He valued all people regardless of gender, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, religious or spiritual bent (or lack thereof), or gender identity. He found & created beauty where it could not be found and shared this beauty and love with all who would listen—and with those who thought they were not interested, but had no idea.
See, many of you here are familiar with parables and stories of grace and justice that you studied and learned from holy books. I however, was fortunate to witness parables and actions of grace and justice because Ki’tay lived them.
Solidarity for Ki’tay means active resistance to the status quo--letting ALL people know that they are respected, cherished, valued & LOVED. Solidarity also means letting them know that despite our failures, we are committed to their cause because it is inextricably linked to each of our individual and collective causes. Ki’tay believed that the time is now to seek what is just.
Ki’tay did more in twenty-two years than many can complete in several lifetimes. If he were here right now witnessing for and sharing with all of you in light of all that has occurred even over these past several days, I believe his heart would share this modified message from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of my generation and those who are in the generations to come--who wait eagerly for your response. Will you say to us that the odds are too great? Will you tell us the struggle is too hard? Will your message to us be that the forces of life militate against our arrival as full persons, and that you send your deepest regrets? Or will there be another message—of longing, of hope, of solidarity with our yearnings, of commitment to our causes, whatever the cost? The choice is yours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
In closing, I wish to offer you, a call to love & a call of action.
Here is our call to love. This, from the great Paulo Coelho:
In those moments, love appears and says: 'You think you're heading toward a specific point, but the whole justification for the goal's existence lies in your love for it. Rest a little, but as soon as you can, get up and carry on. Because ever since your goal found out that you were traveling toward it, it has been running to meet you.
And now, our call to action--again from the late great Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. . . .Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
Thank you Ki’tay for consciously sharing your love with us.
Thank you Ki'tay for your countless quiet sacrifices in the name of love, liberation, humanity.
I wholeheartedly recognize and am forever humbled in knowing that you are the mightiest of all our miracles.
May we ever uplift, share and act out your truth: Love Wins.
TW/CW: Discussion of death & violence against a transman after his physical passing. This is a relatively short post about how this world treated my partner, Ki'tay D. Davdson, upon his transition herefrom.
When you are trans, you cannot escape violence in life or death.
There is no rest.
When you are trans, you must be at the ready and ever prepared to combat violence--dead or alive.
Particularly striking are the solemn realities of life and death for transfolk of color, transfolk with disabilities, transfolk living with little or no income; and transfolk at any and all of these intersections. For these individuals, there is no fanfare, Vanity Fair, life fair, or death fair. The world calls you what it wants and treats you how it will--dead or alive.
This is just one small part of Ki’tay D. Davidson’s life story. Ironically, it begins a day after his transition from this physical world. Despite his constant warmth & endless love in life, the cold hatred of this world could not help but try to envelop him in death.
These are partial transcripts from phone calls that took place on December 3, 2014:
. . .
Los Angeles County Coroner Investigator: Well, I just spoke with one of my lieutenants and the way we do the death certificate is by anatomical structure.
Me: That doesn’t make any sense and that’s not going to work. . . .
Investigator: I can have the lieutenant call you.
[Lieutenant calls me. ]
Lieutenant: . . . In this office, we go by anatomical reproductive organs that are intact. This happens a lot. I mean we are in L.A.
Me: Right. I get that trans people end up in your office relatively frequently. You mean that you all still don't have any policies in place to ensure that people are correctly identified on their death certificates?
[I repeat what I have shared with at least three other individuals at the coroner’s office--“anatomical structures/organs/etc.” are not in any way determinative of a person’s gender; this kind of discrimination leads to inaccuracies in government documents and dishonors and erases the lives of people; in 2014 the LA coroner must have some kind of policy on gender markers, and so on. . .]
Lieutenant: Here, we just go by reproductive organs. . . This is just the death certificate, the family can dress him up any way you want for the world.
Hurt by the brazen and casual anti-trans violence; and in sheer terror and panic at the idea that all that my partner fought for in life could be blotted out with the simple stroke of a pen, I mustered my best poker voice and let this lieutenant know that an attorney would be in touch with him about this. I suppose I thought that he might simply agree to do as requested. Not so much. I had no idea who was going to take on this case (which literally had to be resolved within less than a day or two).
And so, after his passing, I had to work to find and communicate with attorneys; organize life celebrations in three states, and a funeral in another; support Ki’tay’s mother with all that comes with a sudden passing; hold up all those who Ki'tay touched who needed to be held in this terrible time of loss; while continuing my own volunteer advocacy for disabled/deaf incarcerated individuals and wrapping up grades for two classes of university students. All of this while trying to grieve the loss of the greatest human and partner and figure out what to do about the fact that those who knew him least were busy commodifying Ki’tay:
"It is just a death certificate. You can dress him up any way you want to for the world."
I was at a loss on the phone that day, and have been in a haze for some time since, but here is what I wish I had been able to say to the lieutenant:
Mr. Smith, if your death certificate labeled you as Ms. Smith, would it be "just a death certificate" then?
It is not “just a death certificate,” and our lives & deaths are not a game of “dress up.”
This certificate of death reflects his breath in life. It reflects his triumph in life--over people like you.
Before you lies a man who packed 100 years of active love and righteous struggle into just twenty-two.
Before you lies a man who is unapologetically black, trans, man, disabled, queer, revolution.
Before you lies a man who gave his all for humanity.
After quite a bit of work from a team of attorneys and several who loved Ki’tay, we triumphed. His death certificate rightly reads, male. This was a huge victory for Ki'tay, but I still grieve deeply about this and its many implications.
How many trans people have gone through this violence before him and how many since? What about those who did not have any family who valued the whole humanity of our departed trans loved ones? Those who did not have a partner with education and legal networking privilege? What of them? What of those to come?
I have been consumed by various kinds of grief since Ki'tay's passing. This grief, however--the grief of knowing that transfolk, still have to fight for justice, love & dignity in death--should not exist. And yet, here I am, still grieving this so. Here is my call to love & action for us all:
Do not force us to fight in death like we are made to fight in life.
Do not make us grieve in death like we are made to grieve in life.
Allow our loved ones to grieve our loss, not your violence.
Let us love.
Let us live.
Let us die [of natural causes].
Let us be [free].
As for my partner:
Call him KI'TAY.
Call him HE.
Call him LOVE.
Eternal thanks to the attorneys who supported Ki’tay in death to be his truest self & to family who literally and figuratively showed up at the coroner’s to honor Ki’tay’s whole self & demand the justice that he always demanded for himself and others:
Dorcas Williams, Ki’tay’s Mother
Sasha Burchert, Transgender Law Center
Allie Cannington, Ki’tay’s Dearest Friend
Susan Mizner, ACLU, Disability Counsel
Shruti Purkayastha, Ki’tay’s Housemate & Friend
Chase Strangio, ACLU, LGBTQ & AIDS Project
Turay, Dear Friend of Ki’tay
Ilona Turner, Transgender Law Center
I dream incessantly of justice. Hoping to calm my mind & stir yours through this freedom space.