The field of disability studies, “while often attentive to gender and sexuality, has often avoided issues of race, remaining centered on white experiences and representations of disability” (Schalk, 4). Similarly, Black study, Black social movements, and struggles for Black liberation have overwhelmingly privileged the narratives of able bodied cis-gendered males. This essay is situated in the emerging field of Black queer disability studies that crosses and challenges these structures of power. Recently this scholarship has been championed by Black feminist scholars such as Nirmana Erevelles (2014), Theri Pickens (2019), Sami Schalk (2018) and La Mar Jurelle Bruce (2021). With this essay we add our voices to that queer Black chorus.
[author’s note: an early edition excerpt from afrofuturist, sci-fi novel, Spoken, by Gabbie Jackson]
“You, the Lukumi, are not suspended in exile. You are a very special tribe. The Orisa have followed you, the Ocean watched as you passed above, some Orisa preceded and waited for you.” – Baale Olukunmi Omikemi Egbelade
“What is it that you hear that no one else can hear?” the blue-gray steele of the psychiatrist’s eyes peered at Sọ̀rọ from across the room with a coolness that matched the cool silver of the doctor’s thin hair, the coldness of the sterile clinical environment.
The unrelenting ice of Sọ̀rọ’s elected response: silence.
“Voices?” the doctor’s pen twitched reflexively, hovering just above the notepad. Seemed to Sọ̀rọ all the doctor could do from licking her damned cracka lips in anticipation.
To Sọ̀rọ, these visits to the psychiatrist were all but booby-trapped. They couldn’t find the “therapy” in the practice; felt about as therapeutic as being Indiana Jones traversing the Temple of Doom. One slip of the tongue, one wrong facial expression, and darts full of anti-psychotics could start flying out the woodwork at any second.
Sọ̀rọ swallowed as the doctor spoke again, “You were saying you heard things no one but you could hear? Since you were little?”
The clock parallel to Sọ̀rọ seemed to tick louder as they tried to keep a calm front, desperately trying to figure out how to reverse-engineer the conversation to them presenting sane.
It’s a slippery tightrope to walk, balancing two standards of sanity. On the one hand, was the sanity rich with Sọ̀rọ’s ancestors’ loving patience, the divine and (super)natural intelligence of the spirit realm that fluttered with life within and around Sọ̀rọ. Where to be sane was to be boundless, to be liberated. Where sanity has always been to live a colorful life of freedom, to discover, to explore, to experience, and to encourage others to follow suit. And on the other hand, there was sanity stripped of its beauty and in its place an armored system of punishment and colorless binaries, rulebooks and pharmaceutical yardsticks. Quicksand centers standing only to swallow your loved ones whole, places where the more you struggle the tighter their hold on you and the deeper you sink.
To Sọ̀rọ, these court-ordered sessions were proof that they were already up to their neck, sinking still.
“Sọ̀rọ, I want you to feel like you can talk to me. I’m here to help,” the old woman smiled, suggesting warmth, “You can trust me.”
Sọ̀rọ nearly winced at the putrid bile that curdled the tone of the doctor’s voice, the brittleness of the statement like acid glass on the tongue. Sọ̀rọ’s eyes flitted upwards as they repositioned themselves in the chair. Sọ̀rọ breathed in deeply, drawing in a careful, pensive breath. The doctor leaned in, nearly threatening to pitch forward at Sọ̀rọ as she was already at the edge of her seat.
“It’s eleven,” Sọ̀rọ breathed.
The doctor’s head jerked back to look at the clock over her shoulder.
“Ah, you’re right,” the disappointment dripping from each word like loosed venom, “Well. That’s our time. I’ll see you next week.”
“Right,” Sọ̀rọ stood calmly, “See you.”
It was a wet, gray day in October the first time Gabbie and I met. A group of fellow housing activists and I had gathered outside of an empty Sheraton Hotel in Times Square to insist upon the placement of unhoused and precariously housed people in empty hotel rooms across the city. In 2020, New York City’s housing crisis was nothing new, but the steep rise in unemployment incited by the COVID-19 pandemic had put increasing pressure on an already violent and unjust housing market to support tens of thousands more families and individuals who were unable to keep up with the inflated cost of rent. In October 2020, there were 80,000 unhoused New Yorkers, while the city’s property owners hoarded 247,000 empty apartments, and over 100,000 empty hotel rooms. With the eviction ban threatening to be lifted by the state of New York every few weeks, even those people granted temporary protections by emergency COVID-19 policies were guaranteed little to no housing security. Furthermore, in the wave of protests that swept the city in the months since the police murder of George Floyd, the crisis of housing was receiving relatively little attention, even from activists. The few of us that gathered in Time Square hoped that we would reach at least one new supporter. Our expectations were exceeded when Gabbie hit us up on Instagram, responding to a flier we had posted for the event. “Can I come say something?” they asked. “I have some information about housing.”
We noticed Gabbie as soon as they arrived because their vibrant energy and radiant smile were impossible to ignore. Rushing over to greet them, I was moved to pull them into a warm embrace on our first meeting. “So nice to meet you, thank you for coming!” I said, leading them over the stretch of sidewalk where we had a small microphone and speaker to address unsuspecting passersby, many of whom would cross the street to avoid us. I offered one of the hot grilled cheese sandwiches which we were cooking on the sidewalk and distributing to anyone who was interested. They politely refused the sandwich, but stepped confidently up to the microphone.
“Listen, do y’all know about adverse possession? I’ll tell you.” A brief pause. “My name is Gabbie, I’m a queer black femme social justice activist, and I’m squatting in some white motherfuckers’ apartment.” she said. She turned to me briefly. “Can I curse?” she said, not really asking permission. “Feel free!” I responded.
Gabbie’s freedom was hard fought and frequently contested. Over the course of the following year, I would bear witness to the high price they were willing to pay to move their body and speak their mind under extreme constraints, surveillance, and threats of violence. They were a freedom fighter. In an interview I conducted months later, they talked about being an activist not as an identity or performance, but as an experience of being “activated”:
Victoria: OK. So when you say that you…you feel activated, like help us understand what you mean by that, what does that mean or what is that experience?
Gabbie: It means that I feel like… I can’t like sit or live passively when it comes to certain issues, like that relate to my lived experience, my quality of life, my ability to live and breathe in this particular society — iteration of human organization, like… like around several different types of issues. You know what I’m saying, like, you can be faced with a problem and acknowledge that the problem is there and not do anything about it. And I feel like if you’re activated, you are faced with that same problem, you know that it’s there and then you not only do something about it, but you try and do everything that you can and recruit people in your community to join you in doing so.
Victoria: Mmm. Okay, awesome. So, how long have you been in that by your own definition, I guess, activated in that way, and do you have any memory of when that started or how that started?
Gabbie: I feel like I’ve been activated for a long time. You know, I can’t say like that, I remember exactly when I started, but I feel like for a long time I’ve been really conscious of Black issues, gender issues, class issues. And I think the intensity of my activation has definitely elevated since I’ve found myself, not like an individual, you know, who cares for others, but rather like immersed in that community of people who are also activated in similar ways.
Victoria: So that’s a good segue way to us kind of talking about how you understand disability justice, and how does that relate to some of the other things that you said, like Black Lives Matter or Black liberation or gender issues or class issues that you mentioned? How do those intersect with disability justice?
Gabbie: Yeah. Um. Well, I think disability is… an issue that I’m newer to than race, gender and class. I think that it started like my consciousness of disability issues definitely started honestly with social media and my friends and my community online, like learning about other people’s lived experiences before I really ever identified as disabled. Like, just kind of my approach has always been different, and I’ve tried to keep a through line of consideration for my friends and comrades and relatives who… live with a disability, you know? Have lived it for longer than I have. Like, working in content accommodations that consider people who are visually disabled or who have hearing disabilities, kind of like forces you to like, change your pace around certain things and consider other people’s perspective. And, after I realized that I have, you know, well, you know, one of the things about disability, too, is like… like mental disabilities and physical disabilities. Like I have been trying to come to terms for a while now that, you know, certain aspects of my… my mental qualify as a disability, like severe depression, you know like anxiety, these kinds of things that I’ve been struggling with very much in private, but also very much without like any kind of like redress or access to… to any kind of suitable care to deal with these things, like it’s very quiet. I had to deal with these things because of things like race and class. You know, I, you know, I don’t necessarily have recourse for these kinds of things a lot of the time, um. And post-traumatic stress disorder, as well, things like that. Dealing with trauma, things like that, but without access to care or, you know, suitable medication. But, um, you know, similar to my experience with physical disability is that like there’s just not any care out there. Really like, whether I’m dealing with, you know, PTSD or, you know, trying to get care for my pain. And it’s consistent that I just don’t get umm, care like any kind of health care. No care is given serious consideration for my suffering, you know, physical pain, mental suffering… like it’s just never prioritized. And I really think that it has a lot to do… oh, no, look, I don’t even think, I know. It has a lot to do with my race, and my class and my gender.
December 11, 2020 Bergen County, New Jersey
I am swept off to my left by a riot kkkop. I am wrestled to the ground by a number of pigs as I struggle against the many hands and knees of the so-called men around me. My face is planted and scraped into cold wet asphalt and then I am holding on for dear god to any visible length of braid and pulling against the hand yanking at and dragging me by my braids in hopes to prevent any being pulled out entirely.
I am slammed into the asphalt. I struggle against the shouting men and ignore their calls to “stop resisting” and “relax.” One of the gloved hands grabbing me finds it way near my mouth and soon shouts of, “she’s biting!” ring out and then the blows start. One hard punch, then another. I don’t know if it was a punch or a knee. I suppose the videos will show. I see a kkkop quickly trying to open a small blue parcel through gloved hands and, thinking it is a chemical restraint, I call out, “They’re gonna inject me with something!” and begin to struggle harder for my life, calling out to anyone who could possibly hear me. All I hear are pigs. To my horror, a spit hood is placed over my head as I struggle.
A knee is pressed into my left cheek as my right cheek is planted firmly into the road and several more pigs use their full weight to pin me down. I’m screaming. My hands are yanked and wrenched behind me, I feel the ligaments pulling in unnatural ways to allow for this extended range of motion. As I struggle under the pain and pressure of half a dozen men beating with my hands behind my back now, my hands reach for anything they can feel and find a cloth tab, pinch down and pull. A pig calls out in warning to the other pigs with hands, knees, shoulders, and boots pressed into me, “She’s reaching for my gun!”
I feel the energy in the group of men shift and as that December air seemed to drop ten more degrees in temperature, I scream out, “I am not reaching for a gun!” In that moment, I knew I was going to die.
What do you say with moments to live and the sound of your comrades shouting getting more and more distant?
I am not reaching for his gun!
I am not reaching for his gun!
All that and maybe your goodbyes, too.
Zipties that I would soon find out to be Black were slid clumsily around my hands still struggling and then they are bound as tightly as possible. I am not shot and killed.
My shoes are removed, shouts of “she’s kicking,” and zipties are placed around my ankles and bound tight enough to cause immediate and lasting pain and scarring.
“I feel I’m constantly being crushed,” Gabbie told me one day when I stopped by the apartment where they were squatting for a visit. “You look good though,” is all I can say, trying to elicit a smile. Their beauty was undeniable, it was as though all of the pressure they were under straightened their back, pulled their shoulders together, pressed their smooth face free of any lines. If they didn’t speak, only the turbulent black sea behind their eyes belied any sign of struggle. However, Gabbie spoke to me, and through courageously vulnerable conversations revealed that they were living with constant and chronic pain. I understood that this pain was the reason we had not gathered in a while, and the reason why Gabbie was no longer the highly visible, vibrant presence in the streets that many of us had grown accustomed to. I asked them to express how their experience living with pain since their most recent arrest just a couple months prior had impacted their ability to participate in protests as they had previously:
Gabbie: Yeah, um…[sigh] Living with a disability is really hard. And how it relates to my activism…I would say first, like it’s kind of made me confront like the way capitalism has kind of seeped into, you know, my and other people’s mentality around activism with regard to hustle culture. Kind of like, constantly trying to do… like the most and be the most productive, the most visible. And it’s like, I really had to like, confront it like a brick wall when I couldn’t do what I could do before. You know, when I couldn’t go to the marches anymore, when I couldn’t, you know, step out for really anything without… outside of walking distance and then walking distance became very short. So it’s like, when it came to my activism that was definitely a hard adjustment. And also kind of a shock, kind of like how people judge your validity. Not everybody, but some people can judge your validity as an activist based on how often they see you in spaces, even like if… not that much is being done in that space. Like I have to deal with a lot of shade being thrown at me, like people second guessing my commitment, um… making jokes about the severity of my disability without actually seeking to talk to me. Like people making jokes about whether I was in a wheelchair or not, like without ever actually like um… actually just asking me how I was. It’s like, it was gross, like a lot of the stuff that I had to deal with at the beginning was really gross. Yeah, it definitely was jarring, and it took a lot of time, I feel like, to get to a place where I was a little bit more physically healed, but also like emotionally and mentally healed from that experience. Because it has to be a lot of like positive self-talk, self-talk, not self-help, the talk with my comrades who are, you know, more versed and living with disabilities and relating to people with disabilities who kind of helped me chip away at like… thinking about people’s narratives about… about me were in any way valid. Like, um… I owe a lot of my mental health as it is right now, like the positive aspects of my mental health to my comrades that I met after becoming physically disabled because they help me understand like… the ways in which I contribute to this work just by being myself. And the different ways that I can go about affecting the things that I want to see.
Sọ̀rọ was silent as a child. As a baby, they never cried, never cooed, never giggled. They simply listened, looking inquisitively in the direction of what they heard.
Sọ̀rọ was born to Elena, a beautiful woman who was a nurse and a mother of two babies born before Sọ̀rọ and another two after. From the moment she held her silent Sọ̀rọ in her arms for the first time, Elena was bewildered and concerned by the absence of Sọ̀rọ’s cries.
She took Sọ̀rọ to doctor after doctor who all found the same to be true: Sọ̀rọ was deficient in none of their other senses and was a perfectly healthy child.
When one doctor suggested an infant Sọ̀rọ start a course of anti-anxiety medication, Elena decided to accept her silent Sọ̀rọ just as they came. Besides, to Elena, the unspoken promise of a full night’s sleep that came with Sọ̀rọ was more than a little appealing.
Unbeknownst to Elena or to anyone else, Sọ̀rọ’s hearing was unlike any other. For them, it was a two-fold sense—what they could hear, they could also taste.
Sọ̀rọ remembered the hospital where they were born, the doctor’s offices Elena toured them through, and every train ride in between. Each a hellscape of sound for Sọ̀rọ, who sat in silence sifting through all the information transmitting through those airwaves. Voices at reception, cordial and distant; medical equipment buzzing, hissing, beeping lifelessly; the tinges of worry and pleading in Elena’s voice; the screeching of the train on the rails and the silence in the cars, every grey-clad rider breathing just loudly enough for Unpluggeds—mostly children too young to receive the augmentation, the people too poor to afford them, and the uninsured—to hear, tapping faintly at their comm-plants.
To Sọ̀rọ, all these sound shared a taste of batteries, a metallic singe that, held too long on the tongue, kept a promise of poison.
Then there were the sounds Sọ̀rọ enjoyed. The turning of paper magazine pages, Elena singing along to her radio, the other kids laughing and screaming down the corridors of their project complex, the smack of a kiss between Elena and her partner, Roe. To Sọ̀rọ, there was something to certain sounds that tasted like taking flight, like wind under wings, something like freedom.
Sọ̀rọ quickly learned that not everyone could hear in the same way.
The appliances around their home sang to Sọ̀rọ. Delicious, sherbert-y harmonies wove through the hum of the old refrigerator. Sọ̀rọ would sit and listen for hours, swaying and savoring the melody of it. But when they brought their younger brother Tito to sit in the same spot to listen, he would just cry, demanding to be returned to his bed.
From time to time, quite like the appliances that sang to Sọ̀rọ, the darkness of shadows spoke as well. Darkness spoke to Sọ̀rọ in voices that were familiar to them, yet foreign to this life. Sọ̀rọ knew them, trusted them, and listened closely because these sounds tasted like home.
Victoria Netanus Grubbs is a black feminist abolitionist educator committed to developing radical leadership in underserved communities in the U.S. and abroad. She completed her PhD in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University in May 2021. Her current book project, Kumva Meze Neza: Sounding Blackness in Rwanda examines how popular Rwandan music works in the aftermath of genocide to produce a collective social body. Drawing on four years of participant observation amongst Rwandan music industry professionals and their audiences, her work demonstrates how shared investments in the sensory experience of blackness produce formations of togetherness that defy traditional organizing categories.
Gabbie Jackson is a Black queer femme artist and activist living in Brooklyn, New York. Through their writing, poetry, and music, they emonstrate the radical futures made possible by a Black feminist aesthetic. Jackson’s style is best described as mesmerizing, meditative, and introspective and exists as a fusion of their favorite genres: hip-hop, indie pop, singer-songwriter soul, and blues. Their songs— which they produce, mix, and master — also invoke a style of music that is near and dear to their heart and the tradition of Black music in this country: protest music. They would love for you to follow their artist profile on Spotify, as a quarantined, bedroom demo version of a single (Black Like Me, released summer 2020) off their debut LP is available there and wherever you stream music.
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Erevelles, N. (2014). Crippin’ Jim Crow: Disability, dis-location, and the school-to-prison pipeline. In Disability incarcerated (pp. 81-99). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
Pickens, T. A. (2019). Black Madness: Mad Blackness. Duke University Press.
Schalk, S. (2018). Bodyminds reimagined. Duke University Press.