|Audre Lorde (credit: poetryfoundation)|
By Therí A. Pickens
Lamonda H. Stallings recently reminded me that one cannot divorce Audre Lorde’s politics and theory from her sexual history. (Lorde usually had omeone “on the side.”) Her understanding of the erotic cannot be divorced from her erotic practices. The charge that undergirds this idea is that we think through embodied experience as part of our scholastic understanding of our Yoda-like figures. Now, let’s not get hit, carjacked, or otherwise trampled at the intersection of dis/ability and blackness.
As Grace Hong notes in her article “The Future of Our Worlds: Black Feminism and the Politics of Knowledge in the University Under Globalization,” too many black feminists have died from cancer for us to not notice or not, in the words of James Baldwin, “bring out our dead.” I would add that many of our black male academics have had their experiences with testicular or prostate cancer. But, it isn’t just cancer. It is lupus, myasthenia gravis, dyslexia, fibromyalgia, depression and more. Our scholarly figures are constantly at the intersections of race, gender, class, and disability.
In some ways this is a stark advantage. In a profession that fetishizes time as essential to good scholastic production, having the time to convalesce sometimes equals time to think. It also could mean that while you are on an IV, forced to stay at home, forbidden from “going into the office,” the home space becomes the scholarly think tank. Unless one is too tired to think – which can often be the case.
Yet the discourses about dis/ability – linked as they are to eugenics and medicalization – connive to limit the extent to which colleagues (tenure & promotion committees!) understand these intersections. Being the singular raced and disabled person places pressure on one to represent a particular (and might I add, peculiar) perspective on committees, in the department, and in professional organizations. Not only does this stifle academic excellence, but it also constricts one’s field of study to being solely embodied. Such an anaconda squeezes its prey slowly and surely. Paralysis is inevitable and it rarely comes with the perks of dis/ability.
I implore us to interrogate the way we think of our academic figures, particularly those who’ve been vocal about their impairments and disabilities (and those who can’t help but be visible or vocal). This isn’t a moment of “getting in folks’ business” but rather an opportunity to think more critically about the spaces we create and the work we produce. Just like Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” must be linked to The Cancer Journals, such an outlook forces us to consider how wide ranging our scholarship can be or the limited fashion in which we conceive of it.
Therí A. Pickens is an assistant professor of English at Bates College, where she teaches courses on Arab American and African American literature. Her research focuses on physicality and the role of the material body in constructing social and political critique.