Disability, Expectation, and a Just a Whiff of Episcopalianism

“I expect color to be used against me,” writes John Edgar Wideman in the closing story of his latest collection American Histories. “Amen,” I think, early, the sun not up, reading alone with my talking computer. Race is the first they “they” see—the predatory “they” ruthless, short tempered and ubiquitous—good God is it everywhere. And the sun not up, alone, I want to reach through circuits and virtual pages and shake Wideman’s hand.

Each of us does her or his or they own dance with the expectation of disadvantage in advance. If you’re black, or Latinx, or queer, or disabled you are far more likely to live this on a daily basis. Not likely. I take that back. One does. What was I thinking?

I expect disability to be used against me.

Long ago I read a definition of resentment which I can’t attribute or source: resentment is drinking poison and waiting for others to die.

I not only expect but know disability will be used against me so how do I escape the poison-resentment-complex? Or “we”—how do we do it? Black, queer, neurodivergent, women in male dominated professions, in my case blind at a university that has poor support services for the disabled and more than passing hostility?

I don’t like poison. It tastes like wormwood and iodine. Trust me I know what it tastes like.

When I’m home alone, after a day of discriminatory treatment, being told to shut up, etc., I think, as I’m sure Wideman must, “I’m a good guy; I’m funny; I like people, why is this happening to me?”

That’s the effect of the poison. Swallowing it you fall into false consciousness, a false expectation about others. You think they’re supposed to change and you’re dying inside and the ableist, racist, homophobic people go on happily about their business. As Auden says famously in his poem Musee des Beaux Arts—suffering is unnoticed by the privileged. He says it better. Read the poem.

The key to having a good life when you know your difference is going to be used against you, perhaps in a minute, perhaps later this afternoon is mysterious and there are few prescriptions in tablet form or in holy books that are proper anodynes. I love the psalms. I adore Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Shit, I’m an Episcopalian. I have whole passages of the New Testament memorized. I love Christ not for his suffering but his transcendence of it. He’s both the king of those who are mocked and of those who persist in love. But I’ll admit it: most days Jesus is too mystical for me when I’m struggling disabled in a hostile world.

I expect disability to be used against me.

It’s that word “expect” that’s the killer.

Expect is related to spectacles. It comes from Latin “to look out”.

Later it comes to mean imagining things that will happen. Somewhere in the 16th century the word transitioned from “fact” (to see what’s coming) to fiction—one of the pejorative dynamics of imagination, suspecting things will happen because they’ve happened in the past. I often tell creative writing students only ten percent of imagination is worthwhile. That estimation may be generous.

This is the poison of imagination. I expect the next bad thing. Ungoverned this becomes depression. The depressed imagination sees everything in the world as equal and equally bad.

Wideman’s literary character is correct: race will be used against him. Finding love in the face of this is the most difficult challenge of all. We can invent machines that defy gravity but so far no machine has defied hate.

I like to think they’re working on this at MIT—maybe something like an aluminum spaghetti colander with wires sticking out that you wear on your head and with a flip of the switch voila hate disappears and water turns into chablis.

As far as I know—not far of course—is the only machine that can zap hate is the imagination which we’re currently under utilizing. Like the oft repeated maxim that we only use ten percent of our brains, we simply fail most days to push our imaginations toward loving others.

I expect to be disliked. It’s a certainty. This is the story of Christ. It’s the story of my neighbor.

I expect to be more loving. Will start today.

I expect to spit. (Expectorate)

“I tell you, you will not see the new beauty and the truth, until you make up your minds to spit.” (Malevich, Essays on Art)

Aim carefully.

Read John Edgar Wideman.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
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Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

George Will and Yale’s Indians

There’s nothing like the prospect of overreaching do-gooders in higher education to stir the dormant juices of conservative pundits. In today’s Washington Post one finds George F. Will’s starchy prose condemning liberal insensibility at Yale University: “Yale Saves Fragile Students from a Carving of a Musket”–a bromide that’s so nearly insensible I wonder about Will’s civic future as it’s obvious he’s forgoing the potential value and goodness of human beings.

Will is incensed that administrators at Yale are concerned about the placement of an altogether remnant and ugly bas relief on the facade of Sterling Memorial Library. In truth it’s a hideous thing, a carving of a thick lipped Indian and a gnashing pilgrim, each clutching their cliched weapon—a bow and arrow and a musket. Make no mistake, they’re in combat, and no love is lost in this stupid, rebarbative vignette. George Will thinks it’s art, or at least, something to be cherished. You wouldn’t know that when the carving was made the curriculum at Yale (and elsewhere) centered on “the white man’s burden” and featured a heaping helping of Social Darwinism. Will cannot imagine that this mise en abyme has an untoward semiotic history. He’s chosen to read discomfort with the stone cartoon as a pean to the contemporary (perceived) coddling of emotionally needy college students, a link that’s about as sensible as saying wolves often dress up as grandmothers and this is why union wages are declining.

Poor Yale students! Poor babies! They can’t take a racist carving! Look! They require campus counseling services because they have mental illnesses! What weaklings! How permissive college administrators are! Will offer us the usual suspects—permissive parents, dewy eyed faculty, and a general decline in our nation’s moral fiber. You’d never know that the sculpture in question is actually quite despicable.

Detestable or ignominious art always lacks scruple and nuance. It’s purpose is to cement common opinion. Both the left and the right can create repellent art. I’d like Will better if he simply said: “Ugly art ye will always have with ye, and get over it.” That might be a defensible position but of course we know who’s paying for Will’s lunch and it’s not the art historians. The basic conservative tenet is this: “racism’s in the past, get over it. They’re just statues, dude.”

Trouble is (as theologian John Lamb Lash puts it) “You can die from kitsch. And we’re close to it.”  And you can certainly die on Native American reservations where healthcare is third rate and poverty is numbingly omnipresent. And images depicting old race wars are provably malign.

No. In Will’s stifling mental pup tent the problem is today’s students have permissive mommies.