Politics Reflections

Black People Don’t Have to Inherit Their Ableism

Let me make myself clear, this post is not an opportunity for majority culture to attack black people, not even a little bit. With that in mind, I have noticed over the past few years a disturbing trend among people of otherwise marginalized groups. Specifically, mine. Ableism is rampant in the black community. Despite being the community most prone to becoming disabled as they age from a combination of a healthcare system that ignores our complaints until they’ve become more serious and over-policing that results in brutality, the worst thing some black people can think of is the prospect of becoming disabled.

Like black people have to do with White Feminists, disabled black people have to beg to be seen in contexts and initiatives that claim to be “intersectional” or “represent blackness.” So how did we get here? Well? You guessed it—White Supremacy, and our own inherited culture. Theoretically, prior to slavery and the colonial era, disabled people were integrated into the communities in which they were born but realities varied widely. In Nigeria, disabled people were ostracized and effectively excommunicated, left out of important communal rights and traditions (Researchers from the University of Nigeria). In Benin, disabled children were believed to be protected by spirits and were welcomed into the community and were even appointed to prominent positions in the community to protect it (Chomba Wa Munyi Disability Studies Quarterly).

Image Description: Elderly black man sits outside in sunlight. Via Wikipedia’s Slave Narratives Collection.

During slavery, disabled blacks led lives with varying treatment from their owners. In some cases, disabled black babies with deformities were automatically disposed of, in others, disabled slaves were given to freak shows (at times, parents would beg for their children to be taken in by the shows to have their lives spared). Those who were still forced to labor, or had outlived use to their owners, were treated grotesquely and at times had their living necessities and rations greatly reduced. As one slave owner put it “when n*ggers were too old to work they ought to be fed on grass.”

During Jim Crow, disabled blacks were just a likely to be lynched as abled blacks, though their disabilities are largely erased from the narrative. Emmet Till was diagnosed with polio as a child and made a nearly full recovery save for a stutter his mother taught him to calm by whistling. He was tortured and lynched for whistling at a White Woman (that same woman recanted her statement in 20-freaking-17). Additionally, it was the violent death of mentally disabled black man named Jesse Washington in 1916 that led to the creation of the NAACP.

Black lives matter
Black Lives Matter Protest | Fibonacci Blue

Currently disabled black people are experiencing this same type of erasure in conversations surrounding police brutality and mass incarceration. Despite 30-50% of high profile cases of police brutality involved a person with a disability, the correlation between blackness and disability goes largely underreported.

Regardless, we don’t have to continue along this path. We could easily say that the black people who further marginalize the disabled in the community are simply doing so after centuries of learned behavior, but that’s too easy an excuse for people from whom I’ve seen greatness. African Americans specifically have managed to define present day culture despite the forces that still desire to keep us in change. We have blended elements from the cultures we were stolen from while building another country with broken backs and hopes of freedom. We are the children of the greatest (only) renaissance on American soil. Disabled black people are some of our most noted in history like Harriet Tubman or Claudia Gordon. My point is, when it comes to how we treat one another, we have the ability to decide what we inherit. We need one another if we’re going to make it through, its up to us to toss this unwanted vestige of the past. So many outside forces have sought to segregate us, we don’t have to do that to one another. We don’t have to pass along the pain done to us.

*If you felt enlightened or moved by this piece, please consider pledging to my Patreon to continue this work. 


  1. No easy answers presented. Hopefully, unity and empathy keep growing. Human patterns recognized and improved upon.

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