In Leadbelly, Tyehimba Jess invokes Blind Lemon Jefferson in two poems: "1912: blind lemon jefferson explaining to leadbelly" and "blind lemon taught me." The former is written in Jefferson's voice; the latter in Leadbelly's. In what follows, I plan to provide an analysis of the first. A brief description:2 The speaker (Blind Lemon Jefferson) provides Leadbelly with advice and an anecdote. Each illustrates Jefferson's relationship to his instrument, the guitar (metonymic for music), and the world at large.3 I unpack portions of the text to demonstrate how to read through the overlapping lenses of blackness and disability.4
Interpreting this poem while attending to blackness and disability requires more than finding the mention of each within the poem itself. But let's start there.5 Jefferson first mentions his blindness at the end of the first stanza, as part of his explanation that "everything gotta be 'live on you son." He advises Leadbelly to "read the crowd like a fortune teller's tealeaf, from the plunk of a nickel to the bang of a quarter to the smell of thieves schemin' on a blind man's cash." The mention of blindness here emphasizes the figurative function of the olfactory change and, in contrast, the material nature of the "plunk" and "bang" of coins. Jefferson listens for those differences not necessarily because his blindness causes extraordinary hearing or smell. While Jefferson does not outright dispute the presumption of increased sensory perception, his statement reframes it such that his impairment (blindness) does not cause the problem, but his disability (the social reality that others attempt to take advantage of him) does.6 He listens and knows the difference because he must. He has trained himself as a mode of survival.7
In the second stanza, Jefferson recounts an instance of ableism where poverty, blackness, and blindness collude with the express consent of spectators. He recalls that he wrestled at a carnival to get his guitar out of hock. One man, after having been beaten (in both senses), attempted to stab him and no one said anything since they had taken bets on his possible injuries. Disfigurement (the resulting scar)8 and his blindness appear in the stanza as markers of difference. Jefferson's blindness, again, is not the problem for him. It is merely an impairment. As it makes social meaning, it becomes a disability. In this stanza, it makes meaning as both advantageous and abject. In fact, the former depends on the latter. It is because others view him as weak and emasculated that they pay to watch him fight.9 It bears mentioning that his blindness and his blackness work together to inform narratives about his masculinity. That is, the expectation is that black men will be hypermasculine, so a blind black man's masculinity becomes questionable because it does not conform to this standard easily. Yet Jefferson turns this into a distinct advantage. Since he is an adroit fighter, he can shift the narrative so that his blindness becomes lucrative. As a strong blind black man, he can earn the cash and the cachet based on his adherence to common notions of black masculinity alongside his toying with stereotypes about and expectations of blindness. Abjection surfaces as the narrative against which he literally fights because others desire that he subscribe to it, and when he does not, they circumscribe him within it. Two ideas interplay. It is not solely the ableist idea that a black blind man should not be able to best the (presumably white) sighted fighter; it is also the ableist and racist desire to see a black blind man bleed. The resulting scar [End Page 93] (the disfigurement) attached to the living body is not an overcoming narrative—one that reads him as having triumphed over his condition.10 Rather, the scar is evidence that he bested those who refused to understand his condition as anything other than abject. Yet, even though "they lost money that day," Jefferson gives no indication that they or anyone else thinks of him differently, rendering the larger overcoming narrative moot.
Blindness should not disappear from interpretive view once we understand the...