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The Overlooked History of Black People With Disabilities

This article was written by Vilissa Thompson for Rewire.News. It is re-printed here to ensure accessibility. It has been edited. Please click here to read the article in its entirety.

collage of six famous black people with disabilities, Harriet Tubman, Tom Wiggans, Fannie Lou Hamer, Maya Angelou, Wilma Rudolph, and Harry Belafonte

What do Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Mary Davidson have in common? They were all important Black historical figures who made incredible strides in our nation’s ongoing struggle for human and civil rights, and they all had disabilities. If you were surprised to learn that these women had disabilities, you are not alone. Many Black historical figures, innovators, and activists have had their disabilities erased when their stories are taught in schools and covered during Black history and women’s history observances—by educators and advocates alike. This erasure speaks volumes about how our society recounts stories of people with disabilities and the narrow lens through which stories are told, particularly those involving disability. Our history is forever incomplete if we fail to highlight and respect the identities of Black heroes and trailblazers with disabilities. Being a Black millennial with a disability, who minored in African-American studies in college, I did not learn that many of the pioneers I respected had disabilities like me until I became an activist. It baffled me that their disabilities were downplayed or eliminated altogether; those disabilities are instrumental to their complete narratives and could provide a mirror for Black people with disabilities to see themselves.

Within my activism work, I have made it an objective to spotlight the progress made by Black people with disabilities during Black History Month. Since 2015, I have highlighted the accomplishments and work of Black activists in the disability community. The most poignant feature occurred last year, when I shined a light on the activists who were influential to the development of the Independent Living (IL) movement in Berkeley, California. The IL movement proclaims that people with disabilties are entitled to the same civil rights as those without, are the experts in stating their needs, and should be in control of how they live their lives. What resulted was a four-part series that centered around Joyce Jackson, Johnnie Lacy, Black Panther Party member Brad Lomax, and Donald Galloway. Learning of their involvement and telling their stories was my way to right the wrongs of them being reduced to a footnote within both Black history and the history of the IL movement, where the activism of people of color with disabilities has not been given the same attention as that of white people with disabilities.

Every time I learn of a new Black person with a disability who created a path that has influenced our lives, I think, “How can I

make others care?” Black history is about embracing the richness, resilience, and tenacity of our people. If we do not care to make an effort to empower all of us by including every aspect of Blackness in our storytelling and collective pride, it will always be short of true inclusion. Heather Watkins, a writer and mother with a disability, had this to say about where our history fits and why it cannot be ignored: “Black Disability History matters to me a great deal because so many of our cultural icons have had disabilities, apparent and/or non-apparent as I’ve discovered. It more than likely factored in self-awareness, decision-making, and how they governed their lives. It’s an important factor that is often downplayed or gets erased in the retelling of their stories, if/when their stories get told at all. Black disability history is part of Black history which is American history. It needs to be chronicled and respected in the same manner we archive forebears who’ve richly contributed to the tapestry of our history and held with the same gleam and esteem. I didn’t learn about many Black history-makers with disabilities until I was well into adulthood and involved in advocacy. I imagine how it might’ve beneficially impacted

my budding adolescent self-awareness knowing disability was part of their lived experience.” “Black disability history is part of Black history which is American history.” That line from Heather perfectly describes disability history’s significance. We as Black people with disabilities have always been here. We have steadfastly proclaimed our rights and humanity to the communities that chronically overlook us, and yet we still rise to do the work needed to free us all. Black disability history matters because without us putting our voices and very bodies on the line, the political and societ

al strides many of us take for granted would not have occurred. Our communities are forever indebted to the achievements made and the fights won by past and present Black figures. Black disability history should be observed and celebrated year round. I charge everyone to learn and share one Black figure with a disability in history so that our people are no longer a secret to anyone, especially to ourselves. Click here to read some of the many stories of influential Black people with disabilities.

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