Introducing Black Disability Studies: A Modest Beginning

Chris Bell's posthumously published anthology Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions is the latest and in some respects the most ambitious contribution to date in the study of race and disability. This field of study was first brought to widespread visibility by Bell himself, with the essay "Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal," which appeared in the second edition of the Disability Studies Reader. In that essay, Bell posits that disability studies (DS) has historically failed "to engage issues of race and ethnicity in a substantive capacity, thereby entrenching whiteness as its constitutive underpinning" (275). According to Bell, this failure has both severely limited the relevance of much DS scholarship and further disenfranchised people of color with disabilities. As a first step toward rectifying this disciplinary oversight and its grave impacts, Bell suggests that we as a field need to acknowledge the oversight, acerbically suggesting that we even rename the field, as currently practiced, "White Disability Studies."

But recognizing the limitations of current DS scholarship can only ever serve as a first step towards truly rectifying these shortcomings. The next step is to begin producing scholarship that is fully engaged with the intersectional identities of race and disability. Yet again, Bell has led the way. Compiling essays from a wide variety of disciplines (ranging from literary and visual studies to social and cultural history), in the anthology Blackness and Disability, Bell attempts to engender a bold revision in our previous and often critically un-interrogated understanding of blackness and disability. Ultimately, however, the dual intervention into both current conceptions of blackness and disability proves to be a difficult task for many of the volume's contributors, and one that is not achieved consistently throughout the anthology. In particular, a number of the essays speak solely to the scholarship of African American Studies, making little use of the critical insights of DS, and as such, missing numerous opportunities to trouble both fields and speak to both audiences on their own terms.

In the past decade, scholarship such as that in Bell's volume has emerged in fits and starts, with some of the most insightful individual essays coming from Susan Schweik, Ellen Samuels and Nirmala Erevelles, among others. 1 But aside from Jennifer C. James's and Cynthia Wu's guest-edited issue of MELUS on "Race, Ethnicity, Disability and Literature," and Pushpa Naidu Parekh's under-acknowledged guest-edited issue of Wagadu on "Intersecting Gender and Disability Perspectives in Rethinking Postcolonial Identities," there has yet to be a truly comprehensive collection of scholarship about the intersections and parallels of race and disability. Thus, Chris Bell's posthumously published Blackness and Disability serves as an important landmark for any further studies in the area of race and disability, regardless of its shortcomings, as it is one of the first book-length works on the topic and the first anthology whatsoever solely on this topic. 2

Bell's choice to focus on black, and more precisely, African American, experiences of disability in this volume highlights the ways in which blackness and disability have been historically conjoined in the American imagination. Leonard Kriegel refers to this fact in "Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim: Some Reflections On The Cripple as Negro," one of the earliest works of DS to deal with both disability and race, albeit quite problematically, when he directly places the experiences of African Americans in parallel with those of Americans with disabilities by suggesting that in light of the success of the Civil Rights Movement for African Americans, "No one can teach the cripple … [or] serve as so authoritative a model in the quest for identity, as can the black man" (417). But in spite of these previously recognized parallels and convergences between blackness and disability, as Bell points out in his introduction to the volume, "too much critical work in African American studies posits the African American body politic in an ableist (read non-disabled) fashion … [and] too much critical work in Disability Studies is concerned with white bodies" (3). Thus, Bell offers his volume as a dual intervention, into both the "structuralist body politics underpinning African American studies and the whiteness at the heart of Disability Studies" (3).

While Bell presents his anthology as a dual intervention, too often the pieces contained therein seem unable to speak to both fields. The reason for this failure, in my opinion, is the decision Bell and many of the contributors make to eschew the vocabulary of DS and even the word "disability" altogether. According to Bell, this conscious decision "points the reader to the notion of disability in all its ambiguity," thus "call[ing] to mind the shifting parameters of disability definition" (3). While the interrogation of disability as a stable category is certainly important, considering the book's status as an introductory volume for this area of inquiry, the lack of explicit engagement with DS scholarship in some of the essays makes disability feel overlooked or assumed rather than interrogated. Blackness and Disability would have benefitted from more explicit and direct exposition on the intersectionality of blackness and disability, perhaps in the form of explanatory apparatuses around the contributions, but more preferably in the essays themselves.

Of the volume's essays, the one which manages most successfully to engage with the issues and scholarship on both race and disability is Michelle Jarman's, "Coming Up from Underground: Uneasy Dialogues at the Intersections of Race, Mental Illness, and Disability Studies." Focusing on Bebe Moore Campbell's final novel, 72-Hour Hold (2005), Jarman attempts to untangle the "many ruptures, gaps, and potential areas of discussion around historical and contemporary intersections of psychiatric treatment, disability, and race" that appear in Campbell's specific depiction of mental illness/disability (10). In particular, Jarman concentrates on the parallels Campbell draws between mental disability and race by depicting mental disability in the novel through the language of slavery, and subsequently the experimental psychiatric interventions in the novel through the language of the Underground Railroad. As Jarman suggests, this unique figuration "provides Campbell with a foundation to connect contemporary resistance and distrust of the dominant medical establishment to racialized histories of mental illness, and the very real dangers of being read as both "black" and "crazy" in the United States" (11). Further, Jarman argues that the connections that the novel draws, though often uneasy and problematic, especially for disability studies scholars, make it an excellent starting point for further consideration of the intersecting narratives of race and mental difference. 3

Another essay in the volume that explicitly puts the categories of race and disability in dialogue is Carlos Clarke Drazen's "Both Sides of the Two-Sided Coin: Rehabilitation of Disabled African American Soldiers." In her essay, Drazen performs an important revision of the conventional, and arguably whitewashed, history of the rehabilitation and reception of returning American war veterans in order to reveal how racism and ableism together have historically conspired against African-American veterans. Drazen's methodological approach as a historian (unlike many of the volume's contributors, who are primarily literary and cultural studies scholars) provides her with the ability to illustrate the dynamic changes that have occurred in the intertwining relationship between racism and ableism over time as exemplified by the changing treatment of black veterans with disabilities. As she suggests, these racist systems have developed and changed, ultimately resulting in a contemporary moment in which "the VA hospital system is not trouble-free, but racial discrimination seems no longer to be among its troubles," at least in any institutionalized way (159).

Drazen's and Jarman's essays constitute two of the more successful contributions to the volume, but many of the other essays are also engaging and informative, even when they do not manage to explicitly integrate both DS and African American Studies approaches. In particular, many of these essays explore the role that sexuality might have in complicating depictions of race and disability, and the ways that pain is thought of across the color line, two subjects ripe for further exploration. Moreover, these contributions remind us of the incredible difficulty of producing scholarship that truly bridges the divide between African American Studies and DS, a difficulty implicit in integrating a discipline that troubles narratives of rehabilitation (DS) with one that itself began with the mission of cultural rehabilitation/de-pathologization (African American Studies).

Though many of the essays in Blackness and Disability could be more explicit in their interrogations of both categories of analysis, including their intersections, this volume is nonetheless a groundbreaking collection of essays that will help DS move towards the kind of racially engaged scholarship that Bell envisioned, serving as a fine first book for what will hopefully be a shelf's worth of monographs and anthologies explicitly about race and disability to come in the next decade.

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that in the course of this volume's publication, and the subsequent gap between publication and this review, the DS community lost both Chris Bell and Carlos Clarke Drazen. Though I did not have the pleasure to know either of them personally, I nonetheless feel confident that the best way we can honor them and their work, and perhaps the way they would have liked best, would be to continue the conversations they have helped begin in this volume.

Works Cited

  • Baynton, Douglas C. "Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History." The New Disability History: American Perspectives, eds. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky. New York: NYU Press, 2001. 33-57.
  • Bell, Chris. "Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal." In The Disability Studies Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York, NY: Routledge, 2006. 275-282.
  • Burch, Susan and Hannah Joyner. Unspeakable: the Story of Junius Wilson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Erevelles, Nirmala. Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Enabling a Transformative Body Politic. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
  • Gilman, Sander. Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.
  • Kriegel, Leonard. "Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim: Some Reflections On The Cripple As Negro." The American Scholar, 38, 1969.412-430.
  • Metzl, Jonathan. The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2010.
  • Richardson, Nadia Monique. "(Review) The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease." Disability Studies Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2012)
  • Rowden, Terry. The Songs of Blind Folk. Ann Arbor: U Michigan Press, 2009.
  • Samuels, Ellen. "'A Complication of Complaints': Untangling Disability, Race, and Gender in William and Ellen Craft's Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom." MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the United States. 31.3, Fall, 2006: 15-47.
  • Samuels, Ellen. "Examining Millie and Christine McKoy: Where Enslavement and Enfreakment Meet." Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Vol. 37, No. 1, Autumn 2011. 53-81.
  • Schweik, Susan. The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public. New York, NY: NYU Press,
  • Schweik, Susan. "Lomax's Matrix: Disability, Solidarity, and the Black Power of 504," DSQ, Volume 31, No. 1, 2011.
  • Schweik, Susan. "Disability Politics and American Literary History: Some Suggestions." American Literary History, Vol. 20, No. 1-2: 2008. 217-237.
  • Wu, Cynthia and Jennifer C. James. "Editors' Introduction: Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Literature." MELUS, Vol. 31, No. 3, Fall 2006. 3-13.


  1. For example, see Schweik's The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (2010), "Lomax's Matrix: Disability, Solidarity, and the Black Power of 504" (2011), "Disability Politics and American Literary History: Some Suggestions" (2008), Samuels's "'A Complication of Complaints': Untangling Disability, Race, and Gender in William and Ellen Craft's Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom" (2006), "Examining Millie and Christine McKoy: Where Enslavement and Enfreakment Meet" (2011), and Nirmala Erevelles Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Enabling a Transformative Body Politic (2011).

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  2. To my knowledge, the only book-length academic study focusing exclusively on race and disability (and specifically on African Americans and disability) published prior to Bell's edited collection is Terry Rowden's The Songs of Blind Folk: African American Musicians and the Cultures of Blindness. But considering the limited scope of Rowden's monograph, it is ultimately unable to approach the range of issues implicit in discussions of race and disability, such as those that relate to disabilities other than blindness, including physical and cognitive ones. There have been previous book-length publications concerning the history of medicine and race, such as Sander Gilman's Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness (1985), or more recently, Jonathan Metzl's The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease (2010). Though such works are important, I believe that their failure to embrace the DS conceptualization of "disability" as a positive form of difference and site for identity formation ultimately limits their value for future racially-engaged DS scholarship, as Nadia Monique Richardson alluded to in her review of Metzl's study in a previous issue of DSQ.

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  3. This intersection has recently been interrogated in Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner's Unspeakable: the Story of Junius Wilson (2007) and Jonathan Metzl's The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease (2010).

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Copyright (c) 2012 Adam P. Newman

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