Seeing Black disabled people affirming their identities, practicing radical transparency, gives me permission to move in my full selfhood.
By Aurielle Marie
“I’m curating a show for disabled poets, and I think you should feature,” read the message from my friend and renowned poet, Kay Ulanday Barrett. A Filipinx-amerikan performer and activist, Kay had the kind of no-nonsense frankness that was both affirming and a bit intimidating. “Me?” I asked. “I only have panic disorder and PTSD. Does that count?” “Yes it totally does!”
I had only met my therapist, Amber, a year ago on a balmy Sunday in April. In that first session, after a few minutes of pleasantries, I was asked the same question all patients eventually are: So, what brings you into therapy today? The list was lengthy. Two years before walking into her office, I had been trapped on Stone Mountain by gun-wielding white supremacists, then doxed. Two years prior to that, I’d been essentially kidnapped by police, spending the entire night zip tied alone in a police van as a consequence for my work as a racial justice organizer. I found myself navigating episodes more frequently; piled into a friend’s car at the fast food drive-through, reclined in movie theaters next to family members, sometimes even in the arms of the love of my life. By force I had become better at asking to work from home on high anxiety days, sometimes skipping elevators, counting the number of Black women I saw in new spaces. Once I was rocked by a panic attack as I went through security for an international work trip, then another just as I boarded the plane. The flight attendant recommended I fly another day, told me it was dangerous, but I couldn’t afford to. I had already missed my flight the night before. It had begun to feel like my body had broken free of my control, morphed into a place that I was no longer welcomed in. I lamented the life I was missing out on, the friends and family I was pushing away.
The first time she used the term “panic disorder” to describe the increasingly debilitating episodes of dread and breathlessness I described to her, I was immediately conflicted. “WebMD says it’s just PTSD. Can’t I take some medicine?” I offered. “Well, maybe it’s both. If you’re interested in taking a medicinal route, I have some idea of who you can talk to,” she reminded me. “No thanks,” I remember spitting out, already grabbing my things, “I’m not, like, crazy, or something. I can handle this on my own.” I was terrified.
Like many people conditioned by ableism, I’ve always thought of disability as a spectrum of inability, a blanket label for people who live without the means or ability to perform normalcy. For Black people, especially Black womxn and marginalized genders, this becomes an even more lethal burden: a pressure to perform “strength”. Even as my own level of ability was shifting, I became more and more transfixed on being strong for family and friends, performing my usual extroverted persona all while struggling to feel safe in my body and in the world. For me and so many Black womxn, our value in the world is based on how much we can provide for others. So, to be seen as disabled is to be seen by an able-oriented world as categorically incapable, and therefore, wholly invaluable to the people in our lives and the world at large. Am I now one of those people who are unable to cope? I remember asking myself. I’m supposed to be stronger than this. What is wrong with me?
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I couldn’t find a way to merge what I knew about myself with this term, disorder. It didn’t help, either, that the majority of prominent disabled activists or folks overcoming disorders, both in the media and online, are white. It doesn’t help, that the majority of those prominent disabled activists do not actively confront their white privilege. My life is already so vastly different from one cushioned by whiteness. I’m already left behind, again and again. I’ve met very few Black, plus sized, queer activists who live, love, work and play like I do, visibly navigating the world with the same disorders as me. I know so few who comfortably use terms like “disabled” to describe themselves. If they don’t, how can I? Should I? Am I allowed?
The #QueerCripRollCall, a hashtag sprouting up from twitter, started by Zipporah Arielle (@coffeespoonie on twitter) provided a glimpse into a world that begins to answer my questions. Though not started by a Black femme person, the hashtag was filled with the names, stories, and bomb-ass selfies of Black queer people and Black plus sized femmes at varying levels of ability and disability. From strangers to friends, to people I fangirl over like Ericka Hart. More than simply seeing familiar faces down my timeline, I felt something more encouraging than anything has throughout this process: I felt seen and witnessed by the people I am kindred to. It may seem small, but seeing Black disabled people affirming their identities, practicing radical transparency, gives me permission to move in my full selfhood, even as I struggle with the terms to call myself.
Even as I realized the way I related to an ability-oriented world was changing, I didn’t see the more intimate shift— the change in how I related to my own body. I missed how my hesitance to affirm and celebrate disability, narrowed my capacity to perform kindness, gentleness, or care for myself. If my own measure of worth remained linked to the performance of ableness or productivity, it would never be possible for me to accept healing, radical love for my body’s inability to meet the standards set by ableism.
I finally make it onto the stage, between poet powerhouses Rachel McKibbens and Kay Ulanday, and am met with jokes about spoons and sobering affirmations for the body’s capacity. I marvel, if I’m honest, at the ease with which we gather, Black and brown queer people who have found community in a word I am so new to. I want that for myself. I want this for my own body. I am beginning to realize that the closest barrier to healing is owning my mad-ness. Beyond hashtags, I am open to trying this a new way. I’m still searching for the models that show me how.
Aurielle Marie is an essayist, poet, and activist hailing from the Deep South. She writes about Blackness, bodies, sex and pop culture from a Black feminist lens. Follow her: @YesAurielle.
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