In her newest book, Black Disability Politics, Dr. Sami Schalk, Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison discusses the parallels between racial activism and advocacy for those with disabilities. Relying heavily on research, the book partners the archives of the Black Panther Party and the National Black Women’s Project with interviews of present day Black disabled cultural workers. ESSENCE recently spoke with Schalk about her book, set for release October 31, and the role that systemic oppression plays in disability politics.
For those who may not have familiarity with Black disability politics, can you define what it is?
SAMI SCHALK (SS): I define disability politics generally as engagement with disability as a social and political issue rather than as simply an individual and medical concern. Black disability politics specifically then are anti-ableist arguments and actions performed by Black cultural workers which address disability socially and politically within the contexts of anti-Black racism. Black disability politics are often performed in solidarity with disabled people collectively, but Black disability political work does not necessarily center traditional disability rights language and approaches, such as disability pride or civil rights inclusion. The book identifies and analyzes examples of Black disability politics in order to correct the frequent overlooking and misrecognition that has typically occurred in scholarly evaluations of disability in Black activism and culture.
What life experience or realization inspired you to write this book?
SS: I’ve been studying in the field of disability studies for a long time, ever since I took a class called Women & Disability as a sophomore in college. Even then I was really interested in how disability studies didn’t talk a lot about race and how in my Black literature and Black feminism classes, disability wasn’t being talked about with the same critical lens as it was in my disability studies class—if disability was talked about at all. In my time as a disability studies scholar, I have often been the only Black person in the room. In my experiences with Black liberation work, I have often been the only person talking about disability and accessibility. This book came from wanting to lift up and expand my community of Black people who care deeply about disability as a political and social issue, especially Black disabled people. I didn’t want to be the only person in the room anymore. So I wrote the book to highlight and honor some of the cultural workers who have done or are doing this work and to offer a theoretical framework to help more people understand how and why Black disability politics may look different from the mainstream, predominantly white disability rights movement.
According to your research, what’s the correlation between Black Activism and disability advocacy work?
SS: Black activism has often included disability advocacy work, but Black activists don’t always use the word disability. Instead they might talk about a specific health condition or disease that particularly impacts Black people like sickle cell anemia and diabetes or they might use words like health, healing, and wellness to describe what is essentially disability advocacy work. Historically, Black activism has responded to racist violence and racist neglect which produces disability within Black communities like police violence, medical discrimination, or clean water access in ways that at least acknowledge if not directly address disability.
Additionally, as I discuss in my book, Black activists have also sometimes partnered with disability activists on issues directly impacting both communities, such as when the Black Panther Party worked with mental disability activists to fight against the creation of UCLA Center for the Study of Violence which would have used state funds to test various forms of psychosurgery, particularly on “urban” populations and people who had been institutionalized, including those in prison psych wards. The Panthers understood this would disproportionately target low and no income Black people, and so they partnered with mental disability activist groups who were also concerned to stop the funding for the center.
Your book also goes in depth about Black disability politics as part of the National Black Women’s Health Project. Can you share some of the legacy of that work?
SS: The National Black Women’s Health Project was a health education, advocacy, and empowerment organization for Black women by Black women started in 1981 as a project within the National Women’s Health Network, and it became an independent non-profit organization in 1984 with its base in Atlanta, Georgia. The organization wanted to empower Black women with the knowledge and support necessary to be able to take an active part in caring for their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. They did this by taking an intersectional and specifically Black feminist approach to addressing health disparities and health crises for Black women. The National Black Women’s Health Project’s activities included grassroots health self-help groups, national conferences on Black women’s health, Black women’s leadership institutes, sponsored research, policy lobbying, and programs such as Walking for Wellness, which encouraged more physical activity, and Plain Talk, which created dialogue about sex and sexuality between Black mothers and daughters.
From 1988 to 1996, the Project operated the Center for Black Women’s Wellness in Atlanta, a wellness center and clinic in a public housing neighborhood which provided free health screenings, vocational training, and support programs for Black women living with different chronic healthy conditions like HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and hypertension. In 2002, the organization changed its name to the National Black Women’s Health Imperative and that organization still exists today. The legacy of this work is so important because this organization showed how critical it is to have health data specific to certain gendered racial groups like Black women in order to understand where health disparities exist and why.
What are some takeaways that you would like for readers to gain by reading your book?
SS: One thing I’d like readers to take away from this book is that Black people have been doing anti-ableist work and thinking about disability politics in our own communities in our own ways for a long time. Just because it doesn’t look the same or use the same words as disability rights sometimes doesn’t mean that it’s not essential work against an ableist society. The second thing that I’d like readers to take away from this book is that there is no Black liberation without disability justice, and there is no disability justice without Black liberation. We cannot be free as Black people unless we learn to address disability as a systemic oppression issue that works in conjunction with race, gender, class, and sexuality to oppress and harm people. All Black people are impacted by ableism, because, ableism which is discrimination against disabled people based on the idea that people whose bodyminds look or function differently from the norm are broken or bad and in need of treatment, cure, and/or personal work to change to be more like the norm, supports the function of racism. We cannot dismantle one without dismantling the other.
Learn more about Professor Sami Schalk and her new book, Black Disability Politics here. This book has been published with complete open access online; downloadable PDFs of each chapter can be found here.