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Contemplating How To Discuss the Dark History Disability in the US

cds6's picture

After our discussion on Tuesday, I was definitely feeling the weight and darkness of the history of disability in the US. From the discussion about Haverford’s own Gotter’s eugenics movement contribution to the varying levels of surveillance at Ellis Island, there were many points in the history of disability that are not being discussed nearly enough in the classroom setting. However, a thought I was contemplating while having this discussion was how does one even begin to talk about something so traumatic and heavy. It is difficult to envision the “correct” way of broaching this topic. This reminded me of a poem by NourbeSe Phillip called “Zong!”( The book length poem tells the story how 130 enslaved Africans died on a ship after several navigational errors while a truly horrific court case arose not for the injustice happening, but for the monetary loss that occurred with the loss of life. However, it does so by creating an anti-narrative, leaving intentional spaces on the pages of the poems to signify haunting of space and the retelling of a story that cannot be told(but must be). This was Phillip’s way of starting a conversation that is sensitive to the traumas being articulated both for those who withstood them and those who are learning about them. 

I looked online for other forms of art that could serve the same purpose for disability history. While unsuccessful in finding verbal poetry, I did find a series of visual poems that I have personally found very intriguing. The piece of art by Maurice Moore consists of these figures that are intentionally left for interpretation with their ambiguous shape, unfinished lines, and amorphous bodies(uploaded along with this post). They were featured in the poetry foundations Disability Poetics collection( and just stuck with me after viewing. They mention explicitly that these figures could represent “disabled bodies” and the space evident in this piece had me drawing connection back to “Zong!” where the author also utilized lack of words or ink to help tell a narrative that is difficult to quite encapsulate with one story.