Black people have never lost touch with how disability lives in and flows through and out of us. We have always found ways to tell the truth about how the conditions we live, love, and survive in [in]form our bodies and minds.Though we rarely use white European language of “disability” to explain our truths, through our art, we have created entire cultural catalogues to capture and commemorate the Black disabled experience.
For example, Black music has always been a forum to broadcast the intricacies of the Black disabled experience. Our artists tell these stories by unearthing the complex relationships between deprivation, violence, disability, trauma and poverty—which are all causes and consequences of one another. We also have reclaimed and recreated words that were used to pathologize Blackness and disability, and boldly tell the story of how generations of deprivation, violence, trauma and oppression are to blame for a great many of our sorrows, struggles, sacrifices, symptoms, selves.
Even still, as is true for almost every country, ableism permeates every aspect of our culture including our music. For example, hip-hop musicians often use disability as metaphor, disablement as threat, and ableist slurs to establish dominance in the hyper-masculine “rap game.” As a result, there is no shortage of ableism (and other ableism-inspired oppressions like sexism) in an art that is often a mirror of the society in which the art lives.
Rather than continuing to engage with stagnant conceptions of disability, we must lean towards our questions, challenges & complexities. These will animate the [art]work of creating a world that centers the love, access & freedom we all deserve.
This living Disability Solidarity playlist is part of a multi-form project borne of heartwork of Dustin Gibson and Talila “TL” Lewis--Black Disabled comrades in lifelong struggle for liberation of all people.
Deep gratitude to Black artists who are brave enough to hold up the mirror and share our truths.
Our venerable griots.
Hold us up.
Hold us down.
Keep holdin Black.
Listen to the playlist here: bit.ly/displaylist
I provided an explanation of my concerns with white disability/deaf rights communities responding to police violence pushing for more training, more fingerspelling police officers, more registries of deaf/disabled people, more deaf/disabled driver cards, more police-led "trainings" for deaf/disabled people, and more.
If you are seeking solutions to police violence, you will have to look much deeper. These proposals perpetuate dangerous ideas about people who are policed and about policing systems.
Please review and study this resource and the links here: bit.ly/policeviolencePWDresponse
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 dream incessantly of justice. Hoping to calm my mind & stir yours through this freedom space.