Race, Disability and Denial

by Guest Contributor A. Rahman Ford


Although I have been both black and disabled my entire life, for years I lied to myself about being disabled. I could appreciate the pride that accompanied the black experience, the historic and perpetual triumphs and tragedies that inspire the progress of a people. But disability was different. Disability was a curse much worse than the curse of Ham, and instead of accepting it I fled into a lie of being someone I could never be and should have never wanted to be. I became a victim of an able-bodied orthodoxy, one memorialized into my memory, derived from the seeds of my lived experiences and the veil of myths through which those experiences are strained. I believe we all succumb to societal orthodoxies in some way, because the procurement of favor demands it and it allows us to live without troublesome confusion. But for many of us, orthodoxies become a memorial, a shine at which we pray and to which we cling, all the while privately acknowledging that the shrine is not of our making, not to our liking and that it segregates and kills us very casually, very privately and very slowly. This photo helped free me from my denial.

Feeling starved, sunken, gaunt and untouchable, I long held certain conceptions of who or what I had and wanted to be, but could not, and thus did my best to hide it from others and myself. For me, poverty is fundamentally about not only the absence of choices, the impossibility of choices and the consequences of that impossibility. I decided to take this photo as a challenge to myself to confront the poverty of my own body and to better understand the costs of my negotiations with my own public and private identities. Many of us fear how easily we parade and perpetuate our public selves, while at the same time fearing the vulnerable, deviant and shameful self we can only be in private. When I saw the photo for the first time I was both shocked and surprised because even though I had lived with that person my entire life, I could never before accept how spent he was. Nothing had ever frightened me more than having to face the nakedness of my own indigence.

The photo, titled “undesirable,” is essentially about me ultimately beginning the journey of accepting my disability as I have my blackness. More broadly, it is to protest what I refer to as the negative fetishism of poor bodies, bodies that are deemed broke and broken, crooked and criminal, dilapidated and degenerate, ugly and useless. It was influenced in part by depictions of Holocaust victims – persons with disabilities among them – determined by the Nazi regime to be “undesirable” and anathema to the Aryan archetype because they did not and could not conform. “Undesirable” is also meant to invoke sexuality and how poor male bodies navigate the difficulty of being sexually desirable because of the physical valuation males and females deploy to determine sexual attraction. These are issues and feelings that I have dealt with and I used the photo to embody both my struggle and progress.

For me, the photo represents a minimalist confrontation of the intersections of not only race and disability, but also class and sexuality, as seen through my own experiences as a disabled Black man who at one point earned a six-figure salary. At various times and places, one or some of these identities would protrude publicly, others would recede into privacy, not always consciously and not always willingly. Sometimes, however, protrusions and recessions were purposeful. In my own confusing quest for acceptance I could fully embrace being Black, and to a lesser extent being formally educated, but to be disabled was to be diminutive and I could not stand having to crane my neck upward and be forced to be jealous at how tall the world is. I am now coming to realize that there is in fact a difference between being big and being tall. To explore the heights of my own physical vulnerability, I took the photo to make all identities so collectively and simultaneously prominent that I could no longer choose to focus on one and leave another peripheral. At my request, the camera made the choice for me.

The “I AM A MAN” sign represents a protest of how labor, disability and masculinity had come to define my own conception of manhood. It was borrowed from signs held by AFSCME workers at a 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike. Orthodoxy teaches us that muscles are the currency of masculinity, a constant reproduced through labor, production and provision. Manhood is tightly rolled in wads beneath the skin, casually inspected by others to estimate worth and value. Men work. And for those flimsy and flaccid males who cannot, who cannot pronounce manhood loudly, highly and in concert, but are instead forced to be mute, low and isolated, how are they to define their manhood? Cracked and splintered male bodies cannot perform the masculine ethic, and this inability to perform an identity that is inculcated illegitimately and relentlessly, can place a disabled male at the perilous risk of being emasculated at best and feminized at worst. And for a man, or for a male who wants to be one, convention dictates that the only thing worse than being a eunuch is being a woman because to be a woman is to be an expletive.