Monday, October 22, 2012
Aspiring to Less is More Than a Notion
By Therí A. Pickens
This semester, I am teaching an introductory class on Disability Studies. It is a freshman seminar, designed to introduce students to the rigor and rigmarole of critical thinking. This week, I tasked us with dealing with the difficulty of reconciling multiple texts. We read the collection Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability.
In class, students paired up to read one or two poems together and present them to the rest of class. One pair discussed Bartlett who wrote that she did not want to be a “disabled poet” but a poet who happens to have a disability. Immediately, I wanted to throw as much shade as Langston Hughes did to Countee Cullen in “Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” But, I let the students sort this out for themselves.
It strikes me that my aversion to Bartlett’s formulation (and Cullen’s) is that their poetry and its reception belies their epistemological engagement with the world. It is not possible to identify simply as one’s vocation because there are multiple avenues through which we encounter the world. I am never just a scholar. Biggie was “black and ugly as ever.” Audre Lorde listed her identities in Zami. I am a Black, cisgendered woman, disabled, straight scholar of lower-middle class beginnings.
Moreover, the desire to be ‘simply a poet’ shunts aside one’s ontology in favor of reaching dangerously toward white or abled privilege – as if it is something to which one should aspire. At times, I find the invisibility and availability of mediocrity within privilege compelling, but never do I think it would be appropriate to aspire to a condition that requires the oppression of others.
Beauty is a verb. We do it by being ourselves.
Therí A. Pickens is an assistant professor of English at Bates College and a contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE.