Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Whose Bodies Are Salvageable? MLA 2018, part five

This is the fifth part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here is part one. Here is part two. Here is part three. Here is part four.

303: Blackness and Disability: A Special Issue of the African American Review

Twelve years ago, I attended a “Disability and Blackness” MLA panel that included only one black presenter. So it was a big relief to see that this panel contained as many black scholars as white scholars. Except that thanks to weather conditions, only half the panel was able to show up; so there was only one black presenter present. 

Tim Lyle began by describing the structure of the new disability issue of African American Review and then read a paper by the absent Anna Mollow called, or perhaps relating to a longer work called, “Unvictimizable: Toward a Fat Black Disability Studies.” The paper began by talking about Eric Garner and the pattern of victim-blaming associated with every death of an unarmed black citizen. Congressman Peter King and Pantaleone’s other defenders added to the blame the fact that Garner was fat. Tamir Rice was described as overweight and we were told that “His size made him menacing.” Terrell Day’s and Barbara Dawson’s size were similarly blamed. Fatphobia and ableism work with racism to support an ideological double-bind. This is not a new invention: the discourse of protection combined with the idea that black people are unvictimizable created similar tropes as far back as slavery.

The new racism pathologizes black suffering. Black people are still stereotyped as undisciplined and unable to control their appetites. We need a methodology that takes note of the imbrication of racism, ableism, and fatphobia: all three combine to create a discourse in which black lives are seen as expendable. Different fields and movements each theorize fatness, blackness, and disability in different ways but don’t talk enough to each other.

Tim Lyle’s own essay addressed HIV/AIDS in black women’s writing, focusing on Pearl Cleage’s What Looks like Crazy on an Ordinary Day. Why was it met with such cultural approbation, and why were folks who discussed it talking only about Ava and not Eartha? Both have HIV! But Ava earns her legitimacy in opposition to Eartha: Ava ends up the unthreatening, safer, healthier, productive citizen, no longer an outsider or a threat. Her story relies on the abjection of the queer black bodies. Eartha refuses to rehabilitate and falls out of the narrative almost completely. The novel overlooks the particularities of the infected black body—what has to happen to legitimate the person with AIDS? Treichler called the problem “an epidemic of signification.” Queer and disabled bodies are often excluded from the conversation.

Sarah Orem’s talk was not a description of her contribution to the AAR, but it was relevant to her cultural history of activism on the part of homebound individuals. So what about A Raisin in the Sun? It’s about capitalism’s disabling and deadly impact on working-class African Americans. Activism is generally figured as demanding energy and presence in public, but Hansberry doesn’t ask disabled women to practice bold self-advocacy; she asks others to recognize what disabled black women are up to. Look at different characters’ responses to Ruth. Mama’s response to Ruth’s fainting demonstrates the pressures on middle-class black women to seem put-together all the time. Beneatha has a different idea from Mama’s about what Ruth is suffering from—that “acute ghettoitis” carries a lot of meaning. Beneatha recognizes that Ruth needs a doctor, the doctor she has been moved to become. Note her attentiveness to physical fragility. The play rejects the norm of rugged, self-reliant individuals in favor of interdependence.

Dennis Tyler spoke of the relevance of Black Disability Studies to the conference’s “States of Insecurity” theme. His contribution to the journal issue focuses on the Jim Crow regime and the work of James Weldon Johnson. He asks, what was Jim Crow designed for and outlines disability as a conduit for oppression, marking the uneven distribution of citizenship. Tyler first examines Johnson’s personal encounters with Jim Crow, then how disability and stigma work in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. In his memoir, Johnson cites an instance of how disability is encoded in Jim Crow. A deputy in the Jim Crow car says of a disabled white man there, “I can’t bring that crazy man into the white passengers’ car!” The Jim Crow car is what Mitchell and Snyder would style a Cultural Location of Disability. Jim Crow figures both blackness and disability as threats that must be segregated. We lose vital information if we don’t consider blackness and disability together.

Robert McRuer asked Sarah, what about the space of the liquor store in Raisin? It seems like a pharmakonesque poison/cure. And that three-day drinking binge—is Walter rehabilitatable? Sarah’s reply invoked the question of Walter’s manhood and its relevance to Mama’s opposition (on the basis of disability politics) to the store, and also noted that the store is a semipublic space in opposition to the domestic spaces the women operate in. Dennis asked, yes, which black bodies are salvageable?

Liz Bowen asked, what do people think about Jasbir Puar and the state-imposed debilitation of a population? How does the concept of debility apply here? Dennis said, What does debility offer that disability doesn’t? Look at the historical and theoretical and legal understanding of disability. The historical definition has always considered the societal component. Tim also has strong views on Puar: he said, “I don’t want to touch that question” but added that there are culturally specific understandings of disability and that we should look at Sami Schalk’s contribution to the issue.

Anna Hinton asked about how respectability politics have always been a barrier to disability politics, as have class-based divides. Are things improving? Sarah suggested that Brittney Cooper talks about the productive side of disability politics but acknowledged that respectability politics are shot through and through with disability, so sure it’s a barrier. Tim said he tried to acknowledge the progressive things that Cleage’s novel does, but at that historical moment it can only go so far. Cleage was trying to save black lives in the mid-‘90s, and there’s a crisis of imagination: she can’t imagine unapologetic and unpenitent HIV-positive bodies.  Tyler credits Brittney Cooper and Candace Jenkins for appreciating the way respectability politics have allowed certain black women to survive. Lavelle Porter, from the audience, pointed out that Cleage does open up the problematic of innocence and disability: the novel criticizes the “almost-a-virgin” narrative of the “innocent victim” of AIDS. Tim said, yeah, that’s there early in the novel; but Ava has to lose some of her spunk as she gets closer to a heteronormative life narrative.

I had to hit the restroom; when I returned, Dennis was talking about ideology and I Am Not Your Negro. Julia Miele Rodas noted that Dennis had talked about vulnerability and about ingenuity, and she wanted to consider stigma. When she teaches disability studies in an overwhelmingly POC environment, she encounters immense resistance—lots of “I don’t want to go there.” Dennis observed that much of the nineteenth-century discourse was about black people being too disabled for freedom rather than talking about the ways the system has imposed disability on your body. Sarah said she was teaching Women’s Popular Literatures at a large state school, and all the black women were like “Please don’t make us read Beloved again.” It seemed as if it was too close to home and traumatic. Tim explained that he’d taught “HIV/AIDS and the Color Line,” and students react very differently to Cleage’s novel vs. Marlon Riggs’s documentaries. They could talk about the domesticated milieu of Cleage, but no one wanted to talk about the boldly HIV positive bodies in Riggs. What happens, he asked; why do their bodies drop out? Look at what Cathy Cohen has to say in Boundaries of Blackness. We have to get at some of the logics that determine who’s represented.

After the Q&A, I mentioned to Hinton that Anna Mollow and Jennifer James on the first Blackness & Disability panel a dozen years ago had made relevant points about respectability politics.

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