- Reconstructing the Racial Politics of Disability and Literary History in Bricks Without Straw
Racial Violence and Destructing Reconstruction
It is 1871. Klansmen descend on Red Wing, an independent community of freepersons asserting economic and social agency in postwar North Carolina. After setting fire to a church, the hooded men swarm the house of Nimbus Ware, the community’s leader. The Klansmen brutally beat Ware’s wife Lugena while demanding the whereabouts of Nimbus and his ally, the teacher and minister Eliab Hill. Eliab quickly calls out from a nearby locked cabin, after which
a half dozen men rushed into the room. The foremost fell over the rolling chair which had been left near the door, and the others in turn fell over him.
“What the hell!” cried one. “Here, bring the light here. What is this thing anyhow?”
The light was brought, and the voice continued: “Damned if it ain’t the critter’s go-cart. Here kick the damn thing out—smash it up! Such things ain’t made for niggers to ride on, anyhow. He won’t need it any more—not after we have got through with him.”
“That he won’t!” said another, as the invalid’s chair which had first given Eliab Hill power to move himself about was kicked out of the door and broken into pieces with blows of the axe.1
When the door first began to break, Eliab had “crawled, in his queer tripedal fashion, to the cot” (276). Now he watches in agony as the men destroy his wheelchair. In what follows, the narrator recounts the beating of a black and disabled subject. Careful attention is paid to the violence inflicted upon Eliab’s legs, or the locus of his disability. The narrator observes, “The [End Page 21] withered leg was straightened. The weakened sinews were torn asunder, and as his captor dragged him out into the light and flung the burden away, the limb dropped, lax and nerveless, to the ground” (276). Eliab Hill, now unconscious, is on the verge of death at the hands of the KKK.
This climactic scene, founded partly in fact and fictionalized in Albion Tourgée’s novel Bricks Without Straw (1880), begins to expose the limits of current scholarship on nineteenth-century race, disability, and literary history. As Susan Schweik argues, a more robust “politics of disability in American literary historiography” must show how “the politics of disability is not separate from, nor analogous to, but always intersectional with, the politics of race.”2 Yet readers unfamiliar with Tourgée’s novel likely considered Eliab Hill’s disability only after his wheelchair’s sudden appearance. Ato Quayson’s theory of “aesthetic nervousness,” or the outcome of unexpected material and narrative engagements with disability, grounds both the scene’s climax and my strategic deployment of it.3 Hill’s wheelchair trips the Klansmen even as it short-circuits readers’ expectations that this Klan violence is reducible to racial terror. In such cases, one must deconstruct the dominant scholarly protocols that render black disability invisible. Perhaps accounts of nineteenth-century racial violence are less often connected to disability due to a perceived lack of literary texts that explicitly name this intersection.4 Yet, Eliab’s disability status is not only linked to the Klan’s racial violence, but also presents one of the dominant themes of Tourgée’s novel. As the Klansmen destroy Eliab’s wheelchair, they violently assert which embodiments have rights: white and disabled persons have rights to wheelchairs but “such things ain’t made for niggers to ride on” (275). Put simply, they deem access incompatible with blackness. More so than other black characters, Eliab forces the Klansmen (and the reader) to consider race and disability intersectionally. Even so, he threatens the Klan’s goal to revoke the rights of access for all freepersons since he is a leader of an economically, spiritually, and politically prosperous community. Eliab’s social importance connects to broader questions of access, but the narrator’s focus on his “weakened sinews” and “lax and nerveless” make the embodied effects of racial violence immediate and undeniable.
Connecting this scene to Tourgée’s reconstructed...