- Dis-abled Citizenship:Narrating the Extraordinary Body in Racial Uplift
In her autobiographical sketch, Shadow and Sunshine (1906), Eliza Suggs tells a story of being approached by strangers while riding on a train in the makeshift baby carriage that gave her mobility. Suggs, who due to an "extreme case of [childhood] rickets" never grew to more than thirty-three inches tall, had such fragile bones she could not walk, and, as a result, her memoir recounts what is a primal scene in disability narratives: of being stared at and being compelled to explain what happened and why she is different (56). In this scene, however, Suggs is not simply a disabled artist taking control of the stare and reversing the look on her normal bodied interlocutors. She is also an African American woman at the turn of the twentieth century riding on a train car from Orleans, Nebraska, where her family had relocated during the westward migration of African Americans, and at a time shortly after the famous Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Fergusson (1896) upheld the constitutionality of Louisiana's separate but equal train cars laws. Her testimony, thus, brings together a politics of race and a politics of disability to re-imagine questions of freedom, access, mobility, rights and citizenship. It is also a testimony that has remained largely invisible in narratives of African American literary history and disability studies.1 While many of the strangers question whether Suggs is "smart," "can talk," or has "got feet," or "can use her hands," one patronizing woman's remarks particularly become the focus of Suggs' ironic mockery:
One lady on the train, not long ago, came up to me and began to talk baby talk, "Hello, sir! Hell, sir! Boo!" This was indeed [End Page 99] amusing to me. It drew the attention of every one in the car. Of course, the baby did not respond in the way she expected, she supposing it would laugh and crow. When I was explained to her she was somewhat taken back.(58)
I start with this episode of Eliza Suggs' talking back from her 1906 autobiography because I want to raise the question, to modify Mary Helen Washington's famous query in her address before the 1997 American Studies Association: what would it mean to put disability at the center of African American studies, specifically during the post-Reconstruction struggle for citizenship?2 And what might doing so say about who is allowed to speak, who becomes representative, what is silenced or repressed, and finally who and what become the site of political resistance and value in an African American protest tradition? There has often been an uneasy embrace of disability frameworks within African American studies, which has long fought to unshackle the association of blackness with debilitating physical and cognitive markers (Mitchell and Snyder 33). Thus, studies of African American body politics, while recovering the fetishization of women such as Saartije Baartman, have tended to flaunt the "eccentricity" of aesthetically different rather than disabled bodies (Peterson xiii).3 In contrast, the actual lived experience and perspective of disabled African Americans has been seen as having little to contribute to the "salvific wish" for racial uplift.4 A disabled visibility would only confirm the pathologization of African Americans, as W. E. B. Du Bois argued in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), as a "handicapped" race (9). However, by reversing the gaze in her "sit-in," Suggs challenges a racial uplift triumphalism by undermining its limiting and exclusionary understanding of self-determination and inviolable respectability.5
In his essay, "Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal," Christopher Bell questions the historical silence about disability in African American studies. Countering that invisibility, Bell cautions, however, involves more than adding able-bodiedness to the intersecting oppressions that many African Americans face based on race, class, gender, or sexuality. It requires challenging the whiteness within disability studies that assumes that the "language of disability" operates across different cultures and societies in the same way (278). In what follows I want to recover a historically specific narrative of disability [End Page 100] that affected early formations of black subjectivity and shaped, in...