Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Outliers and Out Right Lies; or How We “Do” Black Disability Studies

By Therí A. Pickens

A head injury led Harriet Tubman to have seizures throughout her life.

I chose the phrase outliers and out right lies because this is what I know is at stake in a field that might ostensibly be termed “Black Disability Studies.” It has the impetus of social justice and fair-mindedness. Yet it exists on the margins as an outlier because it has to give truths to out right lies. I chill with Agamben.

Douglas Baynton has already delineated the whats and wherefores of historical links between rhetoric of blackness and disability (cf. New Disability History edited by Longmore & Umansky). Think about Chris Rock’s “white one-legged busboy” (Bigger & Blacker). That analogy isn’t new nor is it innocuous. But, we’re used to Chris Rock not being innocuous. The linkage of blackness and disability to opposing ideological ends is extensive and often demonstrative of systematic oppression (ie Rock’s class critique). But, they are stories we tell so much (and have told so long) that we believe them as truth, or overlook their constructive (because they make the world) power and destructive (because they unmake lives) power.

So, what’s a scholar to do? How does one “do” Black Disability Studies? Part of it requires “representational detective work” (Chris Bell) in that we think about the people we’ve already embraced for their relevance and give more room to their experiences with disability: Harriet Tubman’s head injury, Emmett Till’s stutter, Paul Robeson’s sojourn in a mental institution, Ann Petry’s Mrs. Hedges, William & Ellen Craft, Harriet Jacobs, Venus Williams’s Sjogren’s, Toni Braxton’s lupus & her son’s autism, a host of Toni Morrison characters, etc. We also have to incorporate lesser-known figures because their experiences at the intersections of race, gender, and disability reveal the machinations of injustice (ie Carolina Twins, Wanda Jean Allen, Junius Wilson).

We also think about how our social justice endeavors against institutions rely on discourses of disability. Karla FC Holloway’s Private Bodies/Public Texts deals with the intersection of race, class, and the medical industrial complex during Hurricane Katrina. Can we really think about the prison industrial complex without examining the way some prisoners are medicated until they leave prison or how the lack of adequate medication drives up recidivism rates for those with psychological concerns?

Some Disability Studies scholars have already addressed some of these concerns: Michelle Jarman, Nirmalla Ervelles, Susan Burch, Ellen Samuels, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Cynthia Wu, Ann Fox, and Jennifer James, among others. I make use of their work often. These scholars do more than insert black figures in Disability Studies paradigms or disabled figures in Black Studies paradigms. We need to do more than cite each other and participate in circular conversations. We have to be creative in our scholarly practices, requiring us to reach outside of both Black Studies and Disability Studies. This is blasphemy for those who review manuscripts because they want to know to whom you’re talking.

Nonetheless, we need to create new paradigms and cull from other fields and thinkers for the purposes of rigor, scholarly ingenuity, and longevity. Just as Black Studies and Disability Studies had to pull its forebears from a variety of fields, to combine them requires a vast array of thinkers and philosophers. The way forward out right lies on the margins and in the interstitial space of critical creativity.

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

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