When I was about 7 or eight years old, I wanted to be a ballerina and actress. Bad. I would spin around our living room on my hands and knees and was constantly writing storylines and plays. I was hungry for it. I constantly begged to be enrolled in a neighborhood dance class that many of my nondisabled peers went to. My mom looked into it and went to enroll me. They wouldn’t take me. Day after day, my mother would go to the studio and beg them to let me in. It took her a year, but they finally let me in. The studio was black-owned. I mention the race of the owner because it matters that there are those within the black community that perpetuate ableism and exclude members of their own community because of it. Its why, for those with invisible diagnoses, choosing to disclose, even to members of our own can be risky. This is likely the aspect of his personhood that Chadwick Boseman had to consider when making the decision not to disclose his illness and disability to the public.
As a public speaker, I often look out into a room and calculate the number of disabled people that are there statistically—especially when they’re Black. I like to think I am speaking directly to them and making it at least somewhat easier to accept their diagnoses and seek the community that has been so fulfilling to me. Disabled Black people are well of aware of the historical reasons that make it difficult for those in our community to claim their disabilities. In fact, the reason I use the term “claim” is that whenever I speak about disability and illness with Black folk—even those I am related to—I am often hit with a common phrase: “we don’t claim that.” And logically, why would they? Disability is widely seen as another marginalized identity that compounds the marginalization experienced with Blackness, but, what I am begging for my people to understand, is that by brushing off conversations around disability and “not claiming it” it feels to the disabled Black people in your life that you are refusing to claim them in their entirety.
As I became old enough and began to look into acting classes for myself, I was discouraged from entering an industry in which my disability could be seen. I was ushered into art forms where my art could be separated from my body and enjoyed. In fact, I chose writing because people had to see and absorb my words before judging my body. I wanted to see myself represented and be seen as myself. But I was quietly and consistently asked to carve myself into pieces so that my wholeness would not be a distraction from my talent. And, let me be clear, I am talented.
What’s baffling to me is that growing up Black and disabled, I was taught a sense of community and interdependence that quite often erases disabled Black folk. I was taught “each one teach one” and “ we take care of our own” but each time I asked where we could carve out space for disability representation, I was expected to understand that the Black community had greater priorities than that. If I really wanted for it to exist, I would have to create it myself like Black people are so often forced to.
Boseman’s legacy as the Black Panther will live on in his many fans, but for those of us that are Black and disabled, the tragedy comes from the fact that he represented a part of us that we are asked to hide because he too had to separate his illness from his talent. In death, fans of Boseman will want to sanitize the nature of their support of him, but looking back, it cannot be ignored that the moment his body began showing signs of disability, he was bullied off of social media platforms and jokes were made at his expense. Now, those same fans use his body as inspiration porn to shame others into productivity. His illness was discounting in life, but in death, it is currency. We cannot dismiss the ableism that comes from within our own community because we are marginalized by white supremacy. If we are going to preach the tenets of “each one, teach one” and “we take care of our own” we have to put in the work behind it.
I am sad to hear of the passing of Chadwick Boseman. The disabled black kid in me finally got the representation I craved. I only wish I knew it. May he rest in power in the fullness of who he was. Wakanda Forever.