Monday, July 30, 2012

When & Where We Enter: Black Studies Scholars & (Cap)Ability

Audre Lorde (credit: poetryfoundation)

By Therí A. Pickens

Lamonda H. Stallings recently reminded me that one cannot divorce Audre Lorde’s politics and theory from her sexual history. (Lorde usually had omeone “on the side.”) Her understanding of the erotic cannot be divorced from her erotic practices. The charge that undergirds this idea is that we think through embodied experience as part of our scholastic understanding of our Yoda-like figures. Now, let’s not get hit, carjacked, or otherwise trampled at the intersection of dis/ability and blackness.

As Grace Hong notes in her article “The Future of Our Worlds: Black Feminism and the Politics of Knowledge in the University Under Globalization,” too many black feminists have died from cancer for us to not notice or not, in the words of James Baldwin, “bring out our dead.” I would add that many of our black male academics have had their experiences with testicular or prostate cancer. But, it isn’t just cancer. It is lupus, myasthenia gravis, dyslexia, fibromyalgia, depression and more. Our scholarly figures are constantly at the intersections of race, gender, class, and disability.

In some ways this is a stark advantage. In a profession that fetishizes time as essential to good scholastic production, having the time to convalesce sometimes equals time to think. It also could mean that while you are on an IV, forced to stay at home, forbidden from “going into the office,” the home space becomes the scholarly think tank. Unless one is too tired to think – which can often be the case.

Yet the discourses about dis/ability – linked as they are to eugenics and medicalization – connive to limit the extent to which colleagues (tenure & promotion committees!) understand these intersections. Being the singular raced and disabled person places pressure on one to represent a particular (and might I add, peculiar) perspective on committees, in the department, and in professional organizations. Not only does this stifle academic excellence, but it also constricts one’s field of study to being solely embodied. Such an anaconda squeezes its prey slowly and surely. Paralysis is inevitable and it rarely comes with the perks of dis/ability.

I implore us to interrogate the way we think of our academic figures, particularly those who’ve been vocal about their impairments and disabilities (and those who can’t help but be visible or vocal). This isn’t a moment of “getting in folks’ business” but rather an opportunity to think more critically about the spaces we create and the work we produce. Just like Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” must be linked to The Cancer Journals, such an outlook forces us to consider how wide ranging our scholarship can be or the limited fashion in which we conceive of it.

Therí A. Pickens is an assistant professor of English at Bates College and a contributing writer for the Cultural Front.


Anonymous said...

I would really strongly argue that the time one spends getting well--"unless one is too tired which is often the case" is really not "thinking time." There are very real cognitive effects of chemotherapy treatments.

For me, my chemo thinking time was spent thinking about possibly dying and leaving my loved ones behind, thinking about trying to make memories with my small child that will outlive me, or wondering what will happen to my family without me to insure them and bring home a paycheck. It's not an academic advantage!

Also, the wording "unless one is too tired" really makes it sound like it's the patient's fault if she's tired from drugs that they actually don a space suit to administer to you.

Yes, many continue to work while in treatment--I myself was teaching during much of my treatment--but it's not easy.

TAP said...

Absolutely, chemo is exhausting. However, I think your comments misread my post and ultimately miss my point about illness more generally. Allow me to clarify.

1) Audre Lorde did use her time in chemo to think through ideas. She wrote "Uses of the Erotic" during this time, suggesting that illness can provide some inspiration for thinking through specific ideas. She remained very well aware that her mission to others was part of how she got well (this is even prevalent in *Burst of Light* when she thinks about her cancer in Germany). Also, this post isn't meant to solely think about cancer and chemo. Lorde is but one example and cancer is but one illness. This varies based on the other illnesses listed. For instance, one probably will not work or think much while being depressed, but if one has MS that is a different scenario.

2) "Unless one is too tired" does not semantically blame patients. It is a caveat for the reality of being ill. It is often the case that people are too tired. Again, this isn't just the case with chemo and cancer. It is true for neuro-muscular illnesses (Chronic Fatigue, MG, Fibromyalgia, etc) and for other disabilities that put strain on the mind-body connection (walking around all day on CP crutches). It is never the patient's fault if there is fatigue. That is a very real part of illness.

3) Nothing here suggests that this is/was/will be easy for those who's bodies defy normativity through illness & disability. However, the blog post was meant to draw attention to the fact that many scholars are in fact working while ill. Lorde was one example among countless others.

It seems like you had a visceral reaction to this based on your own experience for which I am truly grateful as it means this blog is about an issue that is significant to you. I would urge you to engage with the wide range of disability studies out there to sort through this scholastic material.