The following excerpt is from a 1998 interview with Johnnie Lacy, a black female activist for people with disabilities prominent in the 1960’s and 1970’s, conducted for UC Berkeley’s oral history archive. In the excerpt, Lacy recounts what it was like growing up black and disabled.
“I believe that African Americans see disability in the same way that everybody else sees it [perceiving people with disabilities as] worthless, mindless ”without realizing that this is the same attitude held by others toward African Americans. This belief in effect cancels out the black identity they share with a disabled black person, both socially and culturally, because the disability experience is not viewed in the same context as if one were only black, and not disabled. Because of this myopic view, I as a black disabled person could not share in the intellectual dialogue viewed as exclusive to black folk. In other words, I could be one or the other but not both”(Lukin).
As a black woman with a physical disability, I know all too well what it means to have my disability ignored in exchange for being accepted as black or woman. Yet, even with the support of Lacy’s statements to complement my own, it is still rather difficult to explain how I can be either black or woman, maybe both, but never black, woman, and disabled. I am made aware of the impossibility for me to exist completely just as Lacy was made aware; by attempting to engage in discourse about the black experience in a universal sense. As our Black Women Writers course has attempted to talk about the commonalities of the life experiences of black women in our discussions about what it means to be a black woman, the stories and lives of black women with disabilities have been noticeably absent as if to suggest that the only black women that exists are those who are able-bodied persons. Even as we have tried to stretch our definitions of the black woman outside of the archetypes commonly applied to black women, no stretch of the imagination has allowed us to think of what it means to be black, woman, and disabled.
Toni Morrison’s short story, “Recitatif” exemplifies how minorities with disabilities are often alienated from other self-identifying factors such as their race or gender by the way of an ongoing dialogue between Twyla and Roberta. As the narrator of the story, Twyla introduces us to Maggie of whom she describes in several descriptive factors that are typically associated with disability. In the beginning of the story, Twyla describes Maggie as “the kitchen woman with legs like parentheses”(Morrison 264) and goes on to say that in lieu of being able to remember if Maggie could speak or not, (another important characteristic of Maggie related to disability that is actually of great debate throughout the story), “[she] only remembers her legs like parentheses and how she rocked when she walked” (Morrison 264).
Readers are introduced to Roberta’s perception of Maggie when Roberta accuses Twyla of kicking Maggie on the playground where all of them were tormented by the older girls. When Roberta says to Twyla, “You’re the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground,” (Morrison 269) we are made aware that Roberta sees Maggie only in terms of race. As exhibited by these examples, both Roberta and Twyla only have the ability to see Maggie in terms of her gender and race or gender and disability but neither are able to see her as a black woman with a disability. Even though Twyla does recognize that Maggie is sandy-colored in her first description of Maggie, readers are made aware that Twyla doesn’t see Maggie as black when she replies to Roberta’s accusation that she kicked an old black lady by stating that “she wasn’t black” (Morrison 269).
Still, the question remains of why Maggie could not exist in her entirety as black, woman, and disabled. The fact that both Roberta and Twyla express a desire to harm Maggie physically provides insight to why Maggie and actual people with disabilities are alienated by groups that they would otherwise belong to on the basis of race and gender. Although both women throughout the story express that they feel oppressed in their own unique ways, neither felt guilty about wanting to harm a person that was just as oppressed as them, if not more, on the basis of being disabled, black, and woman.Disability as a justification for oppression is a part of a historical narrative that Douglas C. Baynton illuminates in his essay, “Disability and the Historical Justification for Oppression,” in which he proves that the idea of disability has been used as rhetoric to validate the oppression of African Americans., women, and immigrants(33).What is also as important as recognizing how disability has functioned historically to oppress so many groups of people is the recognition that these oppressed groups have had no qualms about viewing disability as a valid reason for oppression, which is undoubtedly the reason why Maggie could not be viewed equally as black and woman. As her 1998 interview reflects, “Lacy was exquisitely conscious of the freedom that even those who might oppose race and sex discrimination felt they could exert in oppressing people with disabilities after a San Francisco State University professor successfully organized a movement to stop her from studying in his department because he saw no place in his profession for wheelchair-users” (Lukin). In Lacy’s view, the allowed discrimination was the result of her being disabled as she stated in the interview that “[her] final and departing shot to him was that if I were just a woman, he could not do this to me; if I were only a person of color, he would not be able to do this to me; and . . . the only way that you [are] able to take this unfair advantage is because I have a disability(Lukin). Lacy’s final statements implies that she felt alienated from members of her race and gender because she didn’t feel as though her rights were being fought for and protected.
If I stated that I have a better understanding of my place as black, woman, and disabled, I would be lying. As a result of this realization, I can only end this essay with my the same question that I begin writing with and of which is a tribute to Sojourner Truth’s legendary speech, “Ain’t I a Woman.”
Ain’t I a Black woman?
Baynton, Douglas. “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History” The New Disability History: American Perspectives, eds. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky. New York: New York University Press, 2001. Print.
Lukin, Joshua. “Activism.” Black disability studies. n.p. 2006. Web. 28 Apr 2012.
Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif.” The Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Women’s Literature. Valarie Lee. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education Inc, 2006.261-274. Print