“Why Do We Whisper Our Stories?”: Disability Frameworks and Multiply Marginalized Subjects
I start this essay with the question posed by Jennifer Eisenhauer (2010) in their article “Writing Dora: Creating Community Through Autobiographical Zines about Mental Illness”: Why do we whisper our stories? They propose this question in response to a student with a mental health disability who approached Eisenhauer after class, speaking of her hospitalization in hushed tones. Those hushed tones address the shame, invisibility, and silence suffered by neurodivergent people in the quiet, in the dark, in the back, unseen, and rarely heard in their own voices. I begin my writing with this quote because my own silences about my personal experiences as a neurodivergent person have come to their limit and I am now in the place where I choose to speak louder, to articulate more of my truth. Why do we whisper our stories? Because we are shamed by the normative, ablebodied world to the madnesses we inhabit.
I recently had an extended conversation with a Black queer woman artist, named LaTreice Branson, who is neurodivergent like me. We talked about our shared experiences and it was revelatory for me to feel free to discuss issues about which I have typically not shared out of self-protection. We agreed that as Black women we often get treated differently by the mental health establishment compared to our white peers. We also ruminated on the importance of self-care in a society that does not care about us as Black women. It was a moment of deep identification for me to speak to someone with whom I could form community because of the many characteristics we have in common.
Eisenhauer (2010) writes about community formed through artists’ sharing personal stories of mental illness through the art form of zines. Eisenhauer’s inspiration and identification found in community ultimately led them to create their own zine about their twenty-seven day confinement in a mental hospital. The following quote is a refrain that repeatedly comes up in the article, expressed poignantly by the zine artist Miranda Hale:
“In order to remove the stigma and shame of dealing with mental illness…we must write/speak about them clearly, openly, and without shame or fear. Only then will these things come out of the metaphorical closet and become a more acceptable, less shameful thing to talk about” (Eisenhauer, 2010, p.28).
Eisenhauer stresses the importance of autobiography in making zines and promotes zine-making as an engaging art activity for college students and pre-service art educators. However, while they identify how mental illness is often excluded from disability culture and the disability arts movement, throughout the article the issue of race is never made explicit. We encounter the typical centering of whiteness in this piece and the unreconciled parts of my identity are left hanging in the lurch. For, as inspired as I might be by Eisenhauer’s encouragement to “come out” as a disabled person, I am left wondering what the ramifications of that might be for me as a Black, queer woman. In my experience I have found that Black neurodivergent people are often treated in excessively punitive ways by law enforcement and mental health care workers. For, as Black people, we are always already the underdog, always already invisible and hypervisible, sub-, super-, and just plain human (Jackson, 2020) all at the same time. The “arts as white property” (Gaztambide-Fernández et al., 2018, p.9) is standard in art education, so I have to explore other fields to flesh out the conception of my identity as artist, art educator, and disabled Black woman and find more reflections of my experience elsewhere.
The theoretical frameworks that I use to assess the Eisenhauer reading on neurodivergence in art education are Black disability studies, Black feminist disability studies, and feminist disability studies. The rationale for this theoretical standpoint is that Black disability studies, Black feminist disability studies, and feminist disability studies are all interdisciplinary approaches to disability that more or less invoke differences of race, class, gender, and sexuality. I look through these theoretical lenses to examine my personal relationship to disability and the intersecting identities of race, gender, and sexuality as key points of analysis. These frameworks will be useful for understanding systems of power relevant to disability and how it appears as a political, cultural, and historical experience entangled with other marginalized identities.
Bailey and Mobley begin to flesh out “a Black feminist disability framework” and urge the reader to attend to the issues of disability, race, and gender that are always already present in Black Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. They assert that “too often we engage race and its impact as an additive or comparative category of difference rather than a constitutive aspect of notions of disability in the West” (Bailey and Mobley, 2019, p.35). They believe that “when disability is more seriously regarded within Black Studies, race within Disability Studies, and gender in both, there are an infinite number of revolutions that a Black feminist disability framework can help bring about” (Bailey and Mobley, 2019, p.35).
I believe that we, as Black women, have the capacity to share our experiential knowledge to support fellow BIPOC in self-liberation. However, I question how much emotional labor is being taken on by Black women when we are asked to educate the dominant culture about our identities and lived realities? Shouldn’t white feminists take on more responsibility for unmasking whiteness in the discourses that they participate in in feminist disability studies? It is a priority for myself and a number of scholars contributing to the fields of Black disability studies and Black feminist disability studies at this time to center issues of race and gender and its entanglement with disability studies in order to shift the power dynamics that privilege white, heteronormative people in virtually all arenas (Bruce, 2021; Bailey and Mobley, 2019; Hinton, 2021; Pickens, 2019). According to Critical Disability Studies scholar, Nirmala Erevelles, “both race and disability are intimately connected to each other so that it is hard to decipher where one begins and the other ends” (Erevelles, 2019, p.602). This speaks to a connection between Blackness and disability that loops and tangles, if not more than it intersects.
It is important to provide some historical background to the frameworks I engage in this essay. Disability Studies was an outgrowth of the disability rights movements of the 1960s and activist movements in the 1980s in the United States and the United Kingdom. Disability Studies challenges the medical model of disability in favor of the social model (Brittanica, n.d.). Critical disability studies emerged in the 1980s as “part of a cluster of politicized identity-based fields of study that arose from rights-based, social-justice-influenced knowledge building and disseminating initiatives” (Garland-Thomson, 2019, p.915-916). The field progressed as scholars blended Queer and Feminist theory with disability studies. By 2005, disability studies moved from the margins of academia to a more emergent position. However, Christopher Bell recognized that the burgeoning field “was largely dominated by white scholars who wrote about white experiences with disability”(Hinton, 2021, p.14-15). Black Disability Studies emerged from Christopher Bell’s critique of “white disability studies” (Hinton, p.15) and became more established as a field when The African American Review dedicated a special issue to Blackness and disability in 2017 (Hinton, 2021). Black feminist studies came forward as an intervention to address the lack of attention to gender and disability in Black Studies and the omission of race within Disability Studies (Bailey and Mobley, 2019).
Although feminist disability studies could be named “white feminist disability studies,” it is nonetheless useful as a framework that can figure disability as “a representational system rather than a medical problem, a social construction instead of a personal misfortune or bodily flaw, and a subject appropriate for wide ranging intellectual inquiry rather than a specialized field within medicine, rehabilitation, or social work” (Garland-Thomson, 2001, p.5). Also, within feminist disability studies are spaces for the examination of the intersection of queerness with disability. Feminist scholars like Rosemarie Garland-Thomson also bring issues of race and gender to bear, albeit foregrounding race in a far less central way than can be found in Black feminist disability scholarship. In feminist disability studies I found work by Stacy Clifford Simplican on autoethnography that proves useful, as I plan to use the methodologies of autoethnography and arts-based research for my dissertation study.
Simplican recognizes the value of “life-writing” and autoethnography to feminist disability studies. She asserts that feminist disability studies “needs to leverage autoethnography differently, telling stories that resist a univocal model of disability” (Simplican, 2017, p.47). This is crucial to a transformational politics of disability, one where my experience as a queer, Black, neurodivergent woman can become constitutive of a narrative that does not rely on whiteness as a totalizing discourse that excludes or marginalizes those of us who might be just a little too different. Simplican urges us as scholars to “interweave autobiographical stories to dismantle the belief that disability equals tragedy” (Simplican, 2017, p.47). I do not choose to conceive of myself and my life in terms of lack, although I know that the specter of conceptions of Black people as “non-beings” runs rampant in this world. There are tragic elements to my story, but my life is certainly not a tragedy, and it can be strenuous to sustain the dance of double consciousness- aware of how I feel about myself in relation to how I understand the white and/or patriarchal “other” to be regarding me (Dubois, 2018).
An element missing from all the articles on disability I reviewed for this essay is an engagement with the spirituality of neurodivergent subjects. For me, I look to the spiritual as a space for indigenous epistemologies that are resistant to white, Judeo-Christian norms. Simplican’s concept of the relational model of disability is described as “…experienced in and through relationships; [disability] does not occur in isolation” (Simplican, 2017, p.51); in relationship to African diaspora religion, neurodivergence may not be framed as disability at all. In my own worlding, there is the opportunity to create new structures for myself to maneuver in and through. I hold the awareness of the difficulties that my African American ancestors have gone through. I think about the female relative that my father uncovered in our family tree who died in confinement in a mental hospital. I believe that I am doing the work for her and other women like her who came before me who did not have voices to adequately articulate or actualize their freedom. I am here as a testament to the endurance of the spirits of African American women, and that is something that one might not find in the stories of disability where whiteness is the unmarked ground from which the discourse is projected (Tenorio, 2022).
Bailey, M., & Mobley, I. A. (2019). Work in the intersections: A black feminist disability framework. Gender & Society, 33(1), 19–40. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243218801523
Branson, L. (2022) Zoom conversation on April 27, 2022. http://www.latreicebranson.com Instagram: @radicaladventuresinwellness
Bruce, L. M. J. (2021). How to go mad without losing your mind: Madness and black radical creativity. Duke University Press.
Critical disability studies. Critical Disability Studies | Critical Disability Studies Collective. (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2022, from https://cdsc.umn.edu/cds
Dubois, W. E.B., & Hinchey, P. H. (2018). The souls of Black Folk. Myers Education Press.
Eisenhauer, J. (2010). Writing Dora: Creating community through autobiographical zines about mental illness. Journal of Cultural Research in Art Education, 28, 25-38.
Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Disability studies. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/disability-studies
Erevelles, N. (2019). “Scenes of Subjection” in Public Education: Thinking Intersectionally as If Disability Matters. Educational Studies, 55(6), 592-605.
Garland‐Thomson, R. (2005). Feminist disability studies. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 30(2), 1557–1587. https://doi.org/10.1086/423352
Gaztambide-Fernández, R., Kraehe, A. M., & Carpenter, B. S. (2018). The arts as white property: An introduction to race, racism, and the arts in education. The Palgrave Handbook of Race and the Arts in Education, 1–31. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-65256-6_1
Hinton, A. (2021). On fits, starts, and entry points: The Rise of Black Disability Studies. CLA Journal, 64(1), 11–29. https://doi.org/10.1353/caj.2021.0005
Jackson, Z. I. (2020). Becoming human: Matter and meaning in an antiblack world. New York University Press.
Pickens, T. A. (2019). Black madness:: Mad blackness. Duke University Press.
Simplican, S. C. (2017). Feminist disability studies as methodology: Life-writing and the abled/disabled binary. Feminist Review, 115(1), 46–60. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41305-017-0039-x
Syracuse University. The Center on Human Policy Women and Disability Feminist Disability Studies Comments. (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2022, from https://thechp.syr.edu/women-and-disability-feminist-disability-studies/
Tenorio, S. (2022). Trans of color critique course syllabus. Pennsylvania State University.
A Note From the Featured Writer
As an African American queer woman artist with an invisible disability, I value critical inquiry as a tool of personal liberation and intellectual exploration. As an emergent scholar, I desire visibility for Black queer, disabled women’s identities in art education and gender studies. My intersectional identities compel me to center communities marginalized by differences in race, gender, sexuality, and ability. My multilayered identities offer great richness to my life and add depth and dimension to my reality. Through my roles as scholar, researcher, educator, and artist, I hope to provide traditionally marginalized subjects with models for self-liberatory enterprise.
Education has held the key for me to unlock the abundance of my personal gifts.
Starting school at my undergraduate institution offered me ways out of the severe marginalization and ableism I was experiencing in my life prior to my studies. While earning my degree, I was busy making art, learning new concepts, developing greater fluency in critical thought, and broadening my spirit to capabilities and possibilities that I always really knew I had. Pursuing my doctoral degree has been equally liberating for me. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to pursue my education at this time in my life so fully. I believe that through my work, I contribute to consciousness and the fight for freedom of people caught in oppression based on race, class, gender, sexuality, and/or ability.
Glynnis Reed-Conway is an accomplished professional visual artist and art educator. She is proud of her years of experience teaching art to multicultural youth. She is currently a doctoral candidate in Art Education and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her scholarly activities weave multiple strands of study that include artmaking practices, African diasporic spirituality, and neurodivergence to produce art education curriculum and pedagogy from a Black disabled feminist point of view. As an artist, Reed-Conway has exhibited her artwork extensively at the local, national, and international levels. A solo exhibition of her photography and collages was featured at the Kunstraum Arcade Gallery in Moedling, Austria. She is the author of the book James Baldwin: Novelist and Critic, from Enslow Publishing. She is a recipient of the “Visions From the New California” award and was awarded artist residencies with AIR Krems in Krems, Austria and Djerassi Resident Artists Program in California.