Recently I have the opportunity to watch a video of Dr. Jeremiah Wright speaking at an anniversary celebration of my church. I was not able to attend due to being out of town that weekend, but I was able to purchase the DVD of the service. I wanted to see Dr. Wright preach because he has always spoke a prophetic word from God about love, understanding, and acceptance. I also greatly admire the man for standing by his principals during the unjust media character assassination during the 2008 presidential election. In his verbose sermon he preaches that everyone should be allowed acceptance in the kingdom of God no matter their race, gender, creed, nationality, and sexuality. However, he didn’t stress that those of us with diverse abilities have a right at the kingdom table. Though he didn’t mean to exclude us, his omission reveals a challenge in the black community regarding perceiving people who have disabilities. The willful or unconscious negation of people with disabilities in the African American psyche is across the board from the black intelligentsia, black community leaders, black advocates, black entertainers, and regular black people.
There is a very obvious disconnect between the black disabled community and the rest of the black community. The hypothesis I have for a cause of this division is that since slavery the African American community has fought the stigmatization that their bodies and minds had defects and thus inferior to their European American counterparts. So the black community has spent four centuries of time and energy to prove their humanity to the dominant American culture. A by product of that is a hidden fear that those who do not succeed in this culture whether due to physical, cognitive, psychological, moral, or financial challenges would show a bad representation on the rest of the ethnicity. So when they come across people in their own community that cannot conform to the dominant body archetype they cannot accept it.
The origin of the African American fear of the disabled body is derived of course from slavery. On the plantation the master used to value his slaves on how well they were able to produce for him. The dominant European culture invested time and energy to create a false narrative of their superiority over the African people that they subjugated. The African American community also inherited the dominant culture’s alienation with its disability community, so as the dominant culture have an history of shutting out its disabled, the African American community emulated this trend. So before the intervention of the Disability Rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s people with disabilities did not occupy public spaces and was not on the public’s radar. Also the disability rights movement was considered a white led movement and didn’t get on the African American radar as a concern. As a result there was no critique within the African American community on dealing with people with disabilities.
Specifically when African Americans look at those of us in the community who are physically, developmentally, or psychologically disabled they do not know what to do with us. To recognize us in their community as full human beings complicates the liberation narrative that the African American constructed that they are worthy to become American citizens because are as physically strong abled-bodied, as intelligent, as psychological whole, as emotionally together as their white counterparts. Since this proof of worthiness is so ingrained in the African American psyche they cannot see those that does not fit within the dominant American narrative of what a body should look like. The community has been so focussed on the liberation of the African in America that they neglect the liberation struggle of other communities that intersect with theirs.
For the African American community dealing with intersectional identities has always been a challenge. The fact that an African American can be both down for African liberation and also be for women’s liberation, LBGTQI liberation, but especially liberation for people with disabilities is a cause of contention in African American culture. Disability for the African American community is a private matter with the individual and not a social construct to organize around. This is why our community needs to be educated in disability justice. The practice of disability justice asserts that everyone has something valuable to offer and that communities have a responsibility to ensure that each of us can fully engage in our communities no matter how our bodies function. It is a practice that fully acknowledges the intersectionality of an individual that encompasses a person’s ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, creed, and ability. In accepting the practice of disability justice the African American community can acknowledge and accept all its members no matter how their bodies are constructed. Our community can then see how being disabled is just a normal part of life.
What would be great is if the African American community on the whole would get behind the disability community. Black advocates and artists with disabilities along with black disabled organizations can lead the way in building bridges between communities. We as a people should recognize that the liberation of African people in America is connected to the liberation of people with disabilities and until all people with disabilities are free and treated as full human beings in society we all are not free.