Triple Cripples: On Blackness, Sexuality, Disability, and Autonomy
*This piece is part of the Blackness, Disability, & Gender Identity Series organized by Vilissa Thompson.
The Macro — with Kym
As a disabled person, for the most part, your body is not your own. Whether it is the need for comprehensive care, intrusive medical examinations, the constant scrutiny from onlookers, or the nature of your disability or your condition itself — you are often not the only shareholder in the capitalist stock, that is your life.
How then are we meant to be able to form an autonomous idea of self, when autonomy, by definition, requires self-governance and self-actualization, not subject to pressures, moral indicators, or coercion from external players or forces?
Disability, by its nature and due to its socio-environmental positioning, inhibits autonomy. Blackness, as defined by white supremacy, channeled through the lens of whiteness, or subject to the scrutiny of the white gaze, also fights to maintain autonomy.1 Religious indoctrination, socioeconomic positioning, geographic location, and one’s exposure to information all take a piece of the “autonomy pie.” Lack of representation, means that tangible examples of what being whole, being oneself and being sure of the ownership of self, looks like — are non-existent, violently so.2 What one is left with, is a somewhat vain attempt to craft an imagined idea of self, that is yet to materialize in one’s own imagination.
This, in some ways, is a universal struggle for those who are at the forefront of Black Liberation think tanks: “What does a liberated future for us and for the planet, actually look like in practice?” Similarly, as Black Disabled People, we ask the same question:
“What does liberation for Disabled Black Bodies, actually look like, when it comes to sex, sensuality, and desirability?”
Black women have historically faced and continue to face the opposing social oppressions of being “undesirable sub-human-females” and “hypersexualized female creatures/objects.” This alone forms a quagmire of complicated, contradictory ideas and concepts, when navigating the arena of self-acceptance (as it pertains to one’s sensuality), in a social context. As a disabled Black Woman, another category is added to this list: infantilization.3 However, as we know, we live in a world climate where Black infants are deemed less valuable, less delicate, less infant, less human … We only need look at the numerous studies relating to the harsh, age-inappropriate punishment of Black children within the school system, by comparison to their white counterparts, to see this philosophy in action.4 Therefore, what does it mean to be a Black Disabled Woman, who is simultaneously invisible, hyper-visible, undesirable, hypersexualized, and infantilized by society? Many of us are still on a journey to “becoming,” and like much of life, there is no one, definitive answer.
Being aware of the continuous policing of one’s body, makes it difficult to find one’s feet. One’s body is often “too disabled” for the sensibilities of those who use visible disability as a marker for social acceptability. If one dares to venture into the sensual expression of that “too disabled” Black body (through clothing or activity), they run the risk of becoming a circus exhibit for bigots, a fetish for exploitative colonizers and a target for abusers. In addition to this, one is potentially (further) ostracized from a Black community that (through Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome and the corrosive effects of colonization), deems your existence to be making the universal Black caucus “look bad” to those whom we are meant to constantly ingratiate ourselves toward, comfort, serve, and seek validation from. In essence, you are damned if you do, and you are damned if you don’t.
This paradoxical positioning allows the Black Disabled person room to forge a new path towards ownership; designing their sensuality in a shape that is ergonomically sound, for the comfortable stabilization of their evolution as a sexual being. Shedding the expectations of an ableist, sexist, anti-Black world and finding/creating a place where one feels free, safe and seen is a journey– but not an impossible one! The legacy of Blackness is one of resourceful innovation, and disability in itself, inspires creativity. Some would say that this combination contains an unrivaled wealth of resources.
The Micro — with Jay
“We pray that you will marry a good man who will love you with your condition.”
A well-meaning prayer that cuts straight to the heart of what it means to be disabled, in a culture where marriage is the single most important thing in a woman’s life. However, in the case of a woman that is disabled, there are some terms of engagement. In order to be loved, and find some semblance of happiness or contentment within a marriage, your disabled body must be “tolerated.” Your entire existence is permanently marked with an asterisk.
A deeply religious and traditional African upbringing meant that not much of my time was dedicated to my sexuality. I was likely unaware that I even had one, let alone how to go about expressing it. My disability and I nearly share an anniversary. I was not born with polio; however, I contracted the poliovirus before my first birthday. There has been nothing that I have done that was not in the presence of my oldest companion.
Navigating the hellish drama of secondary school and puberty, juxtaposed two equally opposing and confusing realities for me growing up. Within my home and around those from my culture, I was absolutely beautiful. There was not a person that I would meet within my parents’ social circles that would not positively comment on my physical features. However, school was a stark cultural contrast to my familial home. There, I got nothing from my peers. My visible disability meant that I was not even considered. During class, when we were learning about sexual education, it was regarding the mechanics of sex, sexual organs, and everything that could go wrong, should you not take proper precautions. The illustrations and examples used, featured people that were not Black or physically disabled. Those of us that have visible disabilities are not thought of as being capable or even worthy of sex, so there would be no need for us to have any sexual reference points. We will never be the object of someone else’s desire.5 This idea, much like our bodies, are outside of the norm.
These experiences, while different, lead me to the same place: nothing about my body and my physicality was ever for me. I could not lay claim over or control the space that I occupied. It was to be modestly hidden away for my “future husband.” My body was to be kept healthy and well for any future offspring. My sexuality or anything relating to that was never factored in. It never mattered; my body was not my own. It was not for me, but to be used in the service of others (if they deemed it ‘tolerable,” of course). It was never something that I had a right to own for myself. If I was to ever get to a place where I was able to own my own sexuality, sensuality, and desirability, my whole world would change.
Right now, it is still dictated by what is considered appropriate by others. It is therefore a revolutionary act to work on no longer seeing my sexual expression under the ownership of other people or institutions. Culture, religion, and the media have decided what my disabled, Black body means to them. It is high time that I decide for myself, on my own terms. We all should.
- Morrison, T. (1998). Toni Morrison on the “White Gaze.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Kgq3F8wbYA. Accessed 9 Oct. 2019. ↩
- Abdullahi, O. (2018). We All Need To Watch And Listen To The Triple Cripples Show. online. Black Ballad. Available at: https://blackballad.co.uk/people/we-all-need-to-watch-and-listen-to-the-triple-cripples-show?listIds=5925d3bb89cc51231bd4c235. Accessed 9 Oct. 2019. ↩
- Oliver, K. and Abdullahi, O. (2019). What it means to be black, disabled women navigating sex | gal-dem. online. gal-dem. Available at: https://gal-dem.com/what-it-means-to-be-black-disabled-women-navigating-sex/. Accessed 9 Oct. 2019. ↩
- Schrier, L. (2019). Education for All? The Impact of Discriminatory School Exclusions – EqualiTeach. online. EqualiTeach. Available at: https://www.equaliteach.co.uk/education-for-all-the-impact-of-discriminatory-school-exclusions/. Accessed 9 Oct. 2019. ↩
- Oliver, K. and Abdullahi, O. (2019). Disabled people are being excluded from conversations about sexuality | Metro News. online. Metro.co.uk. Available at: https://metro.co.uk/2019/09/18/disabled-people-excluded-conversations-sexuality-10765439/. Accessed 9 Oct. 2019. ↩