Old White Finn’s Homage to Black Disabled Lives Matter

Some of the most important intersectional human rights work being done in the United States comes from Black Disabled Lives Matter. This work doesn’t have analogies. Strictly speaking it’s not a slogan, only the meretricious and ill conceived parodies (Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter) are slogans, for DBLM is proleptic, it materializes objections to disabled black human rights by stating what should be true but isn’t. Blue lives already have the money and power; “all lives” means white able bodied life and we know it has the bacon.

I’m a 65 year old Finnish-American blind writer and activist. I don’t know what it’s like to be black and disabled. As a guide dog user I’ve been prevented from entering public accommodations. I’ve been denied cab rides. When I was unemployed a social worker told me I’d never find another job and I should be content to collect social security disability. I’ve been treated badly by airlines, academics, bus drivers, weirdos on the streets and even once in a church. But no one is generally out to shoot me. And because of my cheerful whiteness I’ve even been approached by cops who wanted to help me. (They thought I was lost. You know all blind people are permanently lost.)

If you’re disabled and black you’re pre-judged by systemic racism and ableism. Disability is cheating. Blackness is nascent criminality. Illness is a civic burden. Added together: the black disabled must be locked away. In public they can be tased, shot, whatever, and before you say, “why is this different from non-disabled people of color” let me add that it isn’t but disabled people of color are imagined by racist and ableist society as not ever belonging in public. They are rolling, tapping, ventilating reminders of all civil rights history. Hence they make even some black people uncomfortable. Kudos to Rev. Al Sharpton for mentioning black disabled lives at George Floyd’s funeral.

One of the best things happening is that Black Lives Matter means black disabled lives matter. BLM is amplifying the voices of black disability activists who have critically important stories to tell. Check out the Black Lives Matter page “Black, Disabled and Proud : College Students with Disabilities: https://www.blackdisabledandproud.org/black-lives-matter.html

There you can read Darnelle Moore’s excellent piece on racism as a mental health trigger. Moore writes about the horror and exhaustion of systemic racism.

Check out the Black Lives Matter Washington Disability Rights page: https://www.disabilityrightswa.org/2020/06/01/black-lives-matter/
Here you can read about BLM and disability rights where policing is concerned:

https://www.disabilityrightspa.org/newsroom/black-lives-matter-justice-in-policing/

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If you know your history you’ll remember that the Black Panther Party was a significant promoter of disability rights and inclusion. If you know your history you know that Brown vs. Board of Education opened the doors of public schools for disabled kids like me. The intersections are tight between civil rights movements. But if there’s a moment beyond history—whatever we mean by history in the making—black disabled activists are pushing for true universal rights. They speak for veterans, the elderly, those who steer their chairs with breathing tubes, the guide dog teams, the mentally ill, the homeless, the unemployed, the deaf and non-speaking.

Now being blind I’m terrible at posting videos and I even struggle with pasting links but please check out the work of Vilissa Thompson, LeRoy Moore, and this terrific article published just two days ago at The Guardian; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/09/sandra-bland-eric-garner-freddie-gray-the-toll-of-police-violence-on-disabled-americans

In creative writing circles we’re asked, all of us, the old question, “who are you writing for?” I’ve never known how to answer this. I don’t think I write for blind people only. Certainly not cis gendered white men; not ableist or racist or homophobic types. I think though that today I’m writing for an old friend who is black and trans and has a guide dog.

And yes, nothing here is exhaustive, there’s so much more to be read and said. And yes I’m in total awe of disability activists everywhere.

Learning to Be Afraid, A Manuel for Outlier Bodies

In her latest novel The Burning Girl Claire Messud has her protagonist, a young woman named Julia observe the following: “Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid,” Julia says. “You came to know, in a way you hadn’t as a kid, that the body you inhabited was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified.”

Julia’s words passed through me like a scalpel. Talk about intersectionality! This fits disability, the actual living of it, to a T. All disabled people know this story—the crawling inner sense of contingency, the stares of appraisal, the shrugs, the outright dismissals that happen at any moment. One can add to this “early or late”—my first dismissal came when I was four years old. Here’s how I describe it in my forthcoming memoir about life with guide dogs:

When I was very small I didn’t know I’d meet people who wouldn’t like me until one afternoon, climbing stairs with my father, my hand in his, we met an elderly Swedish woman who lived just below us and who said, “Tsk, Tsk” because I was blind. I was only four and it was winter in Helsinki. This had been a foundational moment for me as such moments are for all sensitive children–it’s the very second we sense we’re not who we’ve met in the mirror, or having no mirror, we’re not who our parents say we are. Cruelty is one way we arrive. It comes without warning like branches tapping a window. “She’s a fool,” my father said as if that solved the riddle of human embarrassment.  

The body I inhabited was vulnerable.

“Imperfectly fortified.” Black bodies, trans bodies, diminutive bodies, let’s be democratic about the matter. So great is the stranglehold of tacit agreement about embodied value, anyone who’s not white, male, at least of average stature, lacks the automatic agency that opposes the vulnerability Julia describes.

When Trayvon Martin, the American teenager who was murdered while minding his own business, who was shot to death for being black in a gated community, I wrote about the tragedy from a disability perspective. I said, among other things:

I know something about being “marked” as disability is always a performance. I am on the street in a conditional way: allowed or not allowed, accepted or not accepted according to the prejudices and educational attainments of others. And because I’ve been disabled since childhood I’ve lived with this dance of provisional life ever since I was small. In effect, if you have a disability, every neighborhood is a gated community. 

Last week the Rev. Al Sharpton counseled Trayvon’s parents that the engines of disparagement would start soon–that Trayvon’s character would be run through the gutter. He was right. And he was properly forecasting what happens whenever a member of a historically marginalized community speaks up for “blaming the victim” is a handy way of sidestepping issues of cultural responsibility. In a way, isn’t that what “gated communities” are all about? Aren’t they simply the architectural result of cultural exceptionalism? Of course. But as a person who travels everywhere accompanied by a guide dog I know something about the architectures and the cultural languages of “the gate” –doormen, security officers, functionaries of all kinds have sized me up in the new “quasi public” spaces that constitute our contemporary town square. I too have been observed, followed, pointed at, and ultimately told I don’t belong by people who are ill informed and marginally empowered. Like Trayvon I am seldom in the right place. Where precisely would that place be? Would it be back in the institution for the blind, circa 1900? Would it be staying at home always? 

Now the forces of revision are saying that Trayvon was a violent pot smoker. Forget that pot smokers are generally not violent and that the vast majority of teens in America have tried it–forget that it’s not a gateway drug. Forget that having been suspended from high school for minor marijuana possession isn’t an advertisement for criminal psychosis. (Didn’t we dismiss that stupid idea along with the film “Reefer Madness” some thirty years ago?) The reality here is that Trayvon is being predictably transformed from an ordinary kid into an aggressor. The evidence doesn’t support this. He was stalked and threatened and the efforts in recent days to recast him as a crazed gangsta are predictable and laughable. But I’m not laughing. I too was an “outsider” teenager. My place in every social and public environment was always conditional. Hell, I even smoked marijuana as a form of self medication. I’m not ashamed of the kid I used to be. I’m not ashamed to count Trayvon Martin as my soul mate. 

There’s a war against black men and boys in this country. There’s also a backlash against women and people with disabilities and the elderly. The forces in all these outrages are the same. The aim is to make all of the United States into a gated community. On the one side are the prisons and warehousing institutions; on the other side, the sanitized neighborhood resorts. I hear the voice: “Sorry, Sir, you can’t come in here.” In my case it’s always a security guard who doesn’t know a guide dog from an elephant. In Trayvon’s case it was a souped up self important member of a neighborhood watch who had no idea what a neighborhood really means. I think all people with disabilities know a great deal about this. I grieve for Trayvon’s family. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him and will never forget.  

Learning to be afraid, to sense your vulnerability, is to recognize, in whatever neighborhood or room your very immanence is bothersome at best—and really that’s the best you can count on. From bothersome you descend quickly to the status of a foreign problem, and then to mild or medium hot threat or worse. Consider the tragedy of Keith Lamont Scott; consider Charleena Lyles; Brian Claunch; Robert Ethan Saylor; consider that half of the people killed by police in the United States are disabled.

One wish of mine is that Americans will pay attention to the fact that all outlier bodies have been essentially criminalized—that is, the foreign body is now imagined to be illegal.