Black History Month 2019: Black, Disabled, & Into Alternative Spiritual Practices

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Image of tarot cards faced up and spread out on a table.

When life shakes us at our core, we long to find something to ground us again.  For me, that grounding has come in the form of expanding my spirituality after the death of my beloved Grandmother on Christmas Eve of 2015.  I have always been spiritual; being raised Baptist by her (though I don’t claim a denomination at this time), but also knowing that there was a desire in finding a deeper understanding and a firmer purpose to what I believed in.  My Grandmother fervently instilled that God brought her through her trials, and it was that same God that answered her prayers of bringing someone into her life after enduring 5 losses in 1983, which included my grandfather, her mother, and brother.  That someone was me; a blessing she made sure God understood she was grateful for every day for the 30 years I had her.

But when it was time for her to transition, I knew I needed to find something that went beyond Christianity to connect with as I moved through my grief and the new reality of living without her.  It was then that I embarked on a journey that many people have done, and found myself a part of a trend of Black people who are either merging or leaving behind traditional religions for new rivers and lakes that are making us whole.  

The Trend of Exploring Alternative Spiritual Practices – Black Women & Femmes Leading the Way

The trend of exploring alternative spiritual practices within the Black community should not be a shock to anyone; it has been well-documented as to how and why Black Millennials and younger Gen-Xers, especially, are on a mass exodus from the Black Church. Many of us who have left or have found a way to reconcile, yet keep our Christianity (or another religion) as our bedrock faith, are all too aware of the hypocrisies witnessed, experienced, and/or taught that went against what actually is written in the Good Book.

The oppressive nature of, and harm endured and/or seen by those within the Church, has called many to question if the God they served sees them as good or an abomination, as needing to be “cured” from their disabilities, or being the cause of any trauma they sustained.  The perversion of Christianity due to the bigotry and -isms/-phobias that run rampant has ostracized, alienated, and disrespected many in our community who have found themselves wondering if they were truly “wonderfully made” in the image of God… or was God ashamed of them?  

Black women and femmes, especially, have led the wave in discovering and finding comfort in studying and embracing the ancestral paths we were forced to leave behind.  It would be Black women and femmes moving the dial on spirituality and bringing it to the surface for those of us who want more from our Gods and faith – that is what we do with everything we touch and set forth upon.  

It is those Black women and femmes, found online, who are teaching the curious and seekers the ways of our ancestors and removing the stigma surrounding witchcraft, hoodoo, voodoo (vodou), tarot, and the like.  Black women and femme astrologers, lightworkers, witches, etc., are also discussing how the distancing we have had as a people to these ancient practices were due to oppression and how we can reconnect to our roots in ways to unearth the spiritual fulfillment we desperately need for survival and healing.  

The need for spiritual practices to be a means of survival and healing are instrumental to the exploration taking place.  Many of us are incorporating these newfound practices into our healing work (such as therapy) so that we can redefine ourselves that are outside of the falsehoods that we understand that are not who we are and are purposeful about shedding.  

The one group that I noticed that is engaging in this trend typically goes under the radar – disabled Black folks.  I started to notice that the people in my spaces were either practicing alternative spiritual paths or were curious about how it relates to them.  I decided to gauge what was transpiring, and share these important insights for Black History Month 2019.

Black, Disabled, & Into Alternative Spiritual Practices

In January 2019, I put out a tweet wanting to know of Black, disabled folks who are into paganism, witchcraft, tarot, just a curious soul, etc.  I was surprised at the number of people who responded stating that they fit this profile, and I thought, “why not explore this more, possibly for Black History Month?”  And that is what I I set out to do by creating a Google form and asking those who replied to my tweet to complete it.

Participants’ Demographic Makeup

In a matter of over a week, I had 14 participants who took the time to answer the questions I had, which were mostly open-ended.  

Here is the breakdown of the profiles of the participants:

  • Gender:

Graph of findings related to gender of the participants.

Note:  For gender, participants were able to write how they identified in lieu of being provided a list.  What is listed above is how participants identified themselves, and I wanted to keep the authenticity of identification with language and phrasing for the results sharing.  

  • Generation identity:

Graph of findings related to generation identity of the participants.

    • Xennial:  14.3% (2 participants)
    • Millennial:  64.3% (9 participants)
    • Gen Z:  21.4% (3 participants)

Note:  Though I had Gen-X listed as a choice for this question, no one identified as being a member of that group.


Alternative Practices Undertaken?

After demographics came the “fun” part of learning:  what practices did my participants undertake?  As you can see from the graph, they are an incredibly diverse group with their exploration.  

“Tarot/Oracle” and “Astrology/Numerology” led the practices with 57.1% (or 8 participants).  Interestingly enough, “Light work/Medium/Tarot Reader” and “Just curious and finding out more” tied at 50% (or 7 participants), followed by “Hoodoo/Conjure” with 42.9% (or 6 participants).  Participants were also given the ability to share practices/beliefs that were not listed: Santeria, Atheism, and Yoruba each had 1 participant response.

Graph of findings related to the interest in alternative practices of the participants.

Note:  The “blank” category on the graph is “Light work / medium / tarot reader.”  

The diversity of practices led me to see that Black disabled people are exploring beliefs that are ancestral grounded, which coincides with the trends of Black women and femmes who have been interviewed about this migration.  Connecting with our ancestors, and for some, removing faiths that are of the oppressor, is essential to developing the spirituality we long for and have been forced to distance ourselves from.


The “Why” – Reasons For Exploration

Understanding the “why” is the reason for this research, and my participants had various reasons for their spiritual paths.

Connecting the dots to what family did that were steep into rituals:

Witchy Whitney:  My grandma’s death set me on my journey to hoodoo. After she died, I began to analyze the weird little sayings, habits she had( like her making me sweep the floor a certain way or spitting on the broom if I swept over my own foot), and I began to research why and found out that although she NEVER identified as a hoodoo practitioner or conjure woman, she had sooooo many habits that could be traced back to conjure folks. I was intrigued.

Being Autistic and wanting to find something to relate to:

LeeAnn:  When you’re an autistic Black girl in a world where Autistic Black girls don’t exist, you look for and at anything to help figure out why you think and feel so differently from everyone you know.

Unpacking fear of curiosity:

Anna:  I’ve always been drawn/interested in alternative spiritual practice, yet warned (frightened) away/against them by Christian family in ways that made the ways I sometimes experience the world more frightening. So I’m at a place where I want to unpack that anti-Blackness in ways that may also, potentially, be healing/soothing. Interestingly, I’ve also drawn people in my life now that can help me begin that work.

When Jesus isn’t enough:

Loryn:  Jesus just wasn’t enough for me anymore. I became agnostic as it pertains to the idea of a Christian God…and the tarot readings, new moon rituals, and reading I have done on Yoruba/Orishas spoke to me more than sermons at church have.


Merging Alternative Practices Into Formal Religions:

When asked if they would incorporate their alternative practices into a formal religion (for example, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.), there were mix responses, with close to half stating no.  

Some had this to say:

Witchy Whitney:  No. I’m an ex-Christian, and although I use parts of the Bible for rituals, I’d rather just use them for the wisdom contained in the text than to conform to any one denomination.

Reaper:  I don’t have anything against established religion personally (discounting its bloody history + all), but I don’t really identify with it. I do like a lot of Buddhist doctrines.

Jazi:  No and I don’t plan to. I haven’t because it doesn’t fit cleanly although I see a lot of overlap between my beliefs and Christianity.


Others noted that they have found ways to integrate their practices into formal religions:

Nyx:  I still go to episcopal church with my mother and read my bible but i also read my cards, light candles, and prayer spells and crystals.

Littlegem:  Yes, I think it’s because I was brought up as a Christian and it’s hard to let that go to an extent

Natasha:  Vodou & Catholicism are intertwined so part of learning about the former has meant revisiting the role of the latter in my life 🙂


Has Alternative Spiritual Practices Reconcile Ableism Found in Formal Religions?

The main question I was curious to understand from participants was whether seeking alternative practices was a means to reconcile the ableism found in mainstream religions.  The responses shared aligned with some of my own reasoning for exploring outside of my dominant faith:

Witchy Whitney:  Yes!!!!!! When I practice hoodoo, I can HEAR my grandma’s voice guiding me in my rituals even when I’m depressed (MDD is my disability). On the other hand, Christianity made me feel as if I was not worthy of even having a religion because Christianity made me feel like living with MDD was an imagination. Christianity made me feel like a nuisance, or that I was imagining my MDD. Christianity made me feel that if I were dealing with depression, it was because I’d sinned and hadn’t prayed it away enough.

Nyx:  I feel in gathering spaces of alternative religions that being disabled isn’t a pray it away type thing. It’s more praying and finding ways to have good days and healing
Like it’s not a demon to exorcise but a part of yourself you work with

Loryn:  yes! Almost every spiritual working I’ve encountered in ATR/Yoruba traditions have encouraged therapy in a way that my church doesn’t all the time.

Leif:  In ways, it has. They weren’t religions that I grew up in, but I did grow up around them, and I witnessed the ableism that my peers faced in their religious communities. A handful of peers + friends have left those communities and religions but seeing the radical work that ones who’ve stayed have done in their communities to approach their religion in ways that dismantle ableist (and other bigoted forms of) thinking has been really helpful in gaining a new perspective on it. It’s also helped me see that there is a really strong need for community and spiritual fulfillment and that there are ways to slowly fight ableism in those areas.


Two participants pointed out something key regarding inclusivity and disability:

LeeAnn:  Honestly, I’m not sure anything not built from the ground up with disabled folx in mind can ever truly reconcile ableism and spirituality

Jazi:  It has but I do witness ableism in some practitioners of alternative practices.


Finding Ways to Mesh Our Identities Within Our Practices:

In regards to how we mesh our practices with our identities, a good portion have found means to do so.  

Regarding disability:

Leif:  …I also find a lot of value in reconnecting with myself, as a disabled person, in a way that doesn’t have to put a lot of value onto my body. My body doesn’t have a whole lot to do with my practice, outside of being the part of me that can hold cards or light things on fire. But even outside of my physical disabilities, my mental illnesses and cognitive disabilities have always been uplifted as another way that I experience the world and are something that helps me connect to the world and myself in ways that some other folks can’t.

Natasha:  Yes. This means honoring my Blackness as a mark of the divine, and honoring my disabilities as part of myself and not take aways from it. Listening to messages from my body have been a major part of integrating my practice into my life.

Reaper:  The way I interpret tarot is directly linked to my belief in our connection to nature + the cosmos, to my trauma from emotional abuse, + to my experiences living with bipolar disorder as a black woman. I feel that perhaps the childhood injury that caused my severe seizures perhaps granted me some great psycho-spiritual gift. I like to believe that these are possibilities, + my spirituality allows me to transform the way I think about my weird brain.

Dominance of Whiteness In Alternative Practice Spaces

Some have noted the gaps in knowledge sharing due to the dominance of white witches:

Jazi:  I’m “new” so I’m still finding my way. I see huge gaps of knowledge missing in what’s shared because much of the writing is done by white witches. I’m studying now about the Orishas so that I draw upon all of those aspects in my practice.


The Impact of Alternative Spiritual Practices on the Exodus from the Black Church (& Other Religious Institutions):

This piece would be remiss if I failed to dive into how gravitating towards alternative practices impacts the influence of the “Black Church” (or other religious institutions) and dwindling membership.  My participants had this to say:

Witchy Whitney:  I’m hoping that- as black hoodoo practitioners grow in number, it’ll become commonplace for the black church, in such that the black church will grow to incorporate hoodoo beliefs into theirs (something that’s already happening unconsciously as black churches rely on herbs/herbalists/herb growers to assist in physical and mental healing).

Anna:  I’m not sure how the Black church will respond. An honest response that may be necessary for it to remain relevant is being honest about how many folks already incorporated alternative practices into their traditional practices but have internalized so much anti-Black sentiment about these practices they dissociate them and in turn sever themselves from the roots and strength of these systems.

Catherine:  The Black Church will not go away entirely, but you will be hard pressed to find people under 35 there.

This sentiment resonated with me, as this is the approach I share when I encounter Black women and femmes who are hesitant about researching alternative practices:

Leif:  …What I really hope for is that more Black folk can find spiritual + religious communities in ways that feel comfortable and uplifting for us, and in ways that don’t center around white people’s religious experiences.


Words to Black Disabled People Who Are Seeking to Explore Alternative Paths:

And lastly, I asked what would you share with fellow Black disabled people who are considering diving into this world:

LeeAnn:  You don’t have to expect magic. You don’t have to fold yourself up to fit in a different but equally uncomfortable box. It’s okay to immerse yourself, absorb, and cut free again to find a better fit. It’s okay to accept what worked for your ancestors may not fit you.

Witchy Whitney:  I would say, research. Research….And talk to family about ancestors, because oft-times black families(specially in the south) have a few members that practiced hoodoo, that they’d discover if only they researched their families. I wish I’d have known that my Grandma believed in and practiced hoodoo before she passed, because I would e learned at her feet. And I’m sure I would’ve been more powerful than I am now with all her hidden knowledge.

Reaper:  Your journey began a long time ago. You just have to relearn some things. You are used to being patient, to learning, + to being different than the norm. Which means you are more prepared than you think. I wish I had known that. I also wish I had known about how big + sweet the community is.

Leif:  I was always raised with “if [a certain aspect of your practice or what you’re looking into] doesn’t feel right, don’t partake in it.” I think a lot of us, especially Black disabled folks, are raised to not believe our own gut feelings/spiritual feelings about what we’re doing or partaking in, but I really feel that it’s important to trust what your feelings are telling you in what feels right or not-so-right for you. When I started my journey on my own terms, I wish I would’ve learned that I don’t need to dilute my practices to fit more with white pagans/witches and that I could have my identity be part of my practice, rather than an afterthought.

The following two responses I felt deeply because they both point to why I started this journey:  wanting to get back into myself and learn who I am, and also connect further to those that have transitioned.  I have always been a spiritual person, and wanted a way to expand my beliefs outside of Christianity.  Christianity is my “bedrock” religion, but learning about my own essence and ancestral bonding are just as important to me, and are aspects that I cannot find within Christianity alone.  Being “seen” within these two responses was empowering and affirming – I am not alone.

Janelle:  It’s a great way to get back to yourself. To get to know yourself again, to understand and learn about the power within yourself.

Deborah:  That my ancestors are always there to help me on my journey and we really are all connected 🙏

 

Final Thoughts

For what is left of Black History Month 2019, I want all of us to sit with how spirituality influences us, and why and how we came to believe what we believe.  It is okay to explore – curiosity is what make being human exciting. I hope that for Black disabled people who are inquisitive, intuitive, and finding their spiritual path, be open to everything that piques your interest without imposing your own limitations to it.  

(Image credit:  Courtesy of Pixabay.)

Planners & Disability: When Two Worlds Collide Effortlessly

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Photo of a few planner supplies: a mini sized discbound planner with a big crystal pen, a sticker of my likeness sipping wine, and a postcard of a bluosh-purple crystal.

My fondness for all things stationery began as a child. Pens, notebooks, journals, stickers, markers – you name it, I loved it. Lisa Frank everything – had to have it. At the height of the gel pens hype, I had all sorts of notebooks that allowed my friends to write notes to me with metallic and pastel colored pens. When I entered high school, we were given planners at the beginning of the year, and that was how I kept up with assignments and events for each class.

Discovering the Planner Community

Until 2015, I had no idea there were others, particularly women and femmes, who shared a similar appreciation for planning as I did. A close friend (whom we call in our community: #PlannerFriendsMakeTheBestFriends) introduced me to what I know now as the planner community, a community that is fascinated with paper planning, stickers, washi tape, pens of all tip sizes and colors, etc. I was shocked to see adults be playful and creative in their planners, and it made me realize that I could do it too.

So I wheeled down the rabbit hole of all things planner related over the past 3 years. I have tried all styles of planners – coiled, discbound, rings, traveler’s notebooks – and I am probably the rare form of planner girl that likes them all and uses them for different things.

  • Discbound allows me to add and move things in my planner as I deem fit.
  • Coiled keeps it all together neatly.
  • Rings, similar reason as discbound, but the portability is ideal.
  • Lastly, traveler’s notebooks are good for travel, particularly the pocket size version that I cannot wait to use on an international getaway.

I have tried the big brands and the up-and-coming ones. I have yet to find something that I don’t like or cannot make work with the 50-11 roles, opportunities, and tasks that can be found at any given moment on my to-do list.

A Planner Girl Gotta Attend Planner Conferences

This year, I decided to attend 2 planner conferences. Planner conferences are events where planners get together to do creative workshops, listen to speeches by brand creators and influencers in the community, and get swag – the bonus aspect of these events.

The first conference I attended was BWWPC, Black Women Who Plan & Create, in Atlanta in October. BWWPC is the group founded by and created for Black women and femmes who love planning. It was the 2nd event this year where I was in a space of women that looked like me and it was so affirming.

The second planner conference I attended occurred this month, Winter Planner-Land. Given the name, you can guess its theme – wintery everything (with a splash of Holiday cheer). This conference took place in Buford, Georgia, which is an hour from Atlanta. This trip was extra fun because I went with the friend who introduced me to the community, and it was our first planner girl trip together.

My Belief As To Why the Planner Community is Open About Discussing Disability & Health

At both events, as well as being a member in the community, I realized one thing: there are many disabled planner folks in this space. It has amazed me, in a good way, at how many planner shops (that are usually found on Etsy or Shopify) have merchandise that centers on mental health, chronic pain, trackers for migraines and moods, inserts to track symptoms for doctor appointments, and so forth. Not only do the consumers of these products share about their usage of these items, but the shop owners themselves disclose how they use their own inventory in multiple ways and why.  My belief to why health and disability are so commonly discussed is because the community is heavily women and femme dominated. We are more open, for example, to share about how our mood trackers help us with our depression and afford us the chance to detect patterns to be aware of.

We are also quick to shut down any traces of ableism when it comes to what people put in their planners. In a group I’m in, someone made a comment about people tracking activities of daily living like showering and brushing one’s teeth in their planner. The original poster (OP) came across judgy (I’m calling it what it was – #NotSorry) about why someone would need to do this. I, along with others, swooped in to state that some people need to track such things for their mental health. Some commented on how notating activities like bathing, washing their hair, brushing their teeth, even eating, were important to track their depression and what they have achieved or not during that day or week. It felt good to see people respond to the OP with facts about how is not gross or silly it is to track what they deemed as “simple” tasks – what is simple to one is monumental to another. Though the post was not intended to be a “The More You Know” moment, it turned into one; I hope others will pause and think before passing judgment on what someone scribbles in their planner.

Realizing That Cripples Love Planners – Who Knew?!

Watching people speak out and share their truths in this moment has been a trend I have seen lately, especially among women and femmes of color. It got me thinking about how planning is important to disabled people, and the vitalness of it. I say planning is vital because without it, many of us would not be able to keep up with our medications, various doctor appointments, tasks for work, meal planning and when to eat, socializing with friends, responsibilities we have to our children and significant others, etc. Planning gives many of us the organization we need to make our lives function (almost) smoothly.

After attending Winter Planner-Land, and seeing how many disabled people were there and some of the swag goodies that could be used for spoonie purposes, I started to connect how the two worlds wove together and I wanted to get a better sense of how disabled people used their planners and why. I put out an ask on Twitter, and received a number of responses that you can read here: Planners & Disabled People.

Some of the highlights are as follows:

Keah Brown (@Keah_Maria):

Without a planner or at least the Calendar app in my phone I would never get anything done and I think that’s because I try to do multiple things at once because that way I feel more productive so it helps me plan out each day so that I can stay on track for deadlines.

Melanie (@bedboundbabe):

Omg! I have to put everything on my schedule because I will forget things. I write down one time appointments or plans and I include recurring events because I don’t know how I’ll feel or how my memory will be when it’s time to do something.

As the planner community grows, I hope to see more disabled people attend the conferences and meetups that are popular in this space. We are here, whether you see us or not. Planning matters to us and it is affirming to see shops provide items that allow us to keep track of the hustle and bustle of life.

If you’re curious about my 2019 planner layout, here are the planners I’ll be using. Each planner has a purpose, whether it’s a catch-all, gratitude, business, projects planning, fitness, witchy things, etc. (Note: I am not affiliated with or sponsored by any of these brands. I either paid for these planners with my own money or received them as swag gifts at a planner event.)

Yellow Paper House Weekly Planner
Happy Planner Year in Bloom – Classic/Monthly
Happy Planner Healthy Hero – Classic
Happy Planner Empowered Woman – Mini
Sew Much Crafting A5/HalfLetter Weekly – Ring Insert
Erin Condren Deluxe Monthly Planner
Llewellyn’s 2019 Witches’ Datebook
We’Moon 2019:  Fanning the Flames  

Plus a few goals planner booklets and notebooks I will be using to journal and/or track my progress in the areas of my life I’m focusing on.  These tools, along with the plethora of stickers I have within my reach, will get me in formation and closer to becoming an amazing me.  

Sharing my love for planning, and seeing its connection to disability and health, is one way of becoming BOLD, which is my word for 2019.  It’s comforting to see other disabled planners, both within and outside of the planner community, boldly express their love for this creative and organizing outlet too.

* * *

On my Patreon this month, I will be interviewing a fellow Planner friend who shares how she’s using her planner for her mental health.  If you want to read the interview with Tarchelle B (who has an amazing playlist of Mental Health Management Planning videos on YouTube), consider subscribing to my Patreon here:  Ramp Your Voice! with Vilissa

The Harriet Tubman Casting Cripping Up Issue

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Black and white image of Harriet Tubman standing. Some rights reserved by National Park Service

Over the past week, I have watched and listened to several conversations on Twitter about the casting uproar for the Harriet Tubman film.  

Yet no one mentioned the obvious issue:  a Black disabled actress is not playing a Black disabled historical figure.  

An issue I run into within Black history and in the portrayals of the lives of our important figures and icons on film is the easy omission of their disabled identities.  And if we are lucky to get disability mentioned somewhere in the storyline, it is treated as a footnote to their overall story.

This is not only problematic; it is downright disrespectful to who the person was.  It is a disgrace to Harriet Tubman. Her disabilities were just as poignant to her life story as what she did to free our people.  (Harriet sustained a severe head injury as a teenager while protecting another slave. Due to this injury, she developed symptoms that are described to be temporal lobe epilepsy and narcolepsy.)

I am easily irritated by the oversight of disability being represented and mentioned in the storytelling of Black historical figures because it was not until I became an activist that I found out that many people I respected and admired were disabled like me.

I was an African American Studies minor as an undergrad – never once did I read something about Harriet’s disabilities.  

That should not be the case if we are paying homage to those who paved the way for us to where we are today as a people.

But it speaks volumes to how we view disability AS A PEOPLE.  

How do we view disability?  As truly a footnote; something that is not equal to our Black identity or not an identity worth associating oneself with at all.  

Do we not realize how many of us would benefit from learning of the disability statuses of historical figures like Harriet?  My whole life, I heard about the tremendous influence of Harriet, but mentioning her disability was a convenient afterthought.  

She became disabled because of slavery, which is the case for many of our ancestors.  Her enslaved disabled body met tremendous obstacles in a society that viewed disability as a financial liability to slaveowners.  How can we pay respect to her or any of our iconic figures if we do not take a moment to understand how disability played a role in their lives and the treatment they were dealt?  How can we effectively tell anyone’s story if a key aspect of their identity is missing from the narrative?

Most importantly, when will we realize that casting Black non-disabled actors and actresses to play Black disabled figures is cripping up?  Black actors and actresses across the Diaspora DO NOT GET A PASS on this.  Not at all.  

If we want better representation, we must include disability in these discussions.  I believe that the cripping up has failed to come up in discussions because 1) people are unaware that Harriet was disabled, and 2) we do not view disability as an important enough identity to get the casting right for these roles.  

Is the casting of Harriet Tubman an issue?  Yes, but it goes beyond what the conversations that has been had.  I hope that one day, we will take extensive inventory of casting decisions made and not forget that disability exists and historical figures deserve to be played by people that share all of the identities they possess – not just the acceptable parts that we can stomach on the big or small screen.  

If the actress playing Harriet Tubman is not disabled, then the film is a failure from the start – point blank.  It will NOT get my viewership or coins – I respect the legendary of Harriet too much to support a film that cannot get it right on many fronts.  

Aunt Vi, #QueenSugar, Black Women, & Our Disabled Bodies: Why We’re Still Whole

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Image of 3 Black women against a light colored background. All 3 are facing and smiling into the camera.
Image credit: Pixabay

If you haven’t watched the show “Queen Sugar,” I don’t know what you’re doing with your life.

The new season premiered on OWN last week, and the series is spearheaded by the talented Ava DuVernay.

In this season, one of the beloved characters, Aunt Vi, has an illness that is a part of her character story.  It was brought to my attention that some people are having difficulty in watching Aunt Vi live her truth with illness, and Ava gave the incredible response to that in her tweet.

I decided to tweet about the reactions to seeing disability/illness depicted on the small screen because this aligns with my desire to discuss the experiences of Black women with disabilities/illnesses for my Patreon (which will debut on July 19th, in commemoration of the 5th anniversary of Ramp Your Voice!).

Below are the thoughts I had on the matter, which touched on the problematic nature of refusing to see someone as whole with a disability/illness and how that projection impacts the way Black women and femmes especially view their bodies and attain acceptance.

Thank you @Ava, for stating what we all should know – that Aunt Vi is WHOLE with her physical illness.  #AuntViIsWhole #QueenSugar

I want to dive into why thinking that sickness/disability tarnishes a person’s “wholeness” and the implications of such ways of thinking on Black women’s/femmes bodies.  

First off, I, & so many others, have discussed the problematic opinions of those in the Black community surrounding disability, sickness, & wholeness (as it relates to religiosity & and collective group think).

Aunt Vi’s value or life isn’t any less devalued because she has an illness.  This way of thinking is stating that disability is a flaw in a person’s humanness that is unsightly or to the extreme sense, is a marker of shame.  

Disability/illness is neither – it is simply a part of the human experience.  Disability is the ONLY marginalized identity that someone can become a member of at any given point in their lifespan.  

The “shame” or “fear” of becoming disabled is disturbing, particularly when “wholeness” or “value” is attached to how we deem someone who is or becomes disabled.  

Why are we so uncomfortable with seeing disability/illness, esp in the Black community?  

Well, it’s due to many factors:  1) How disabled enslaved bodies and lives were discarded & abused by slave owners.

2)  How religious teachings and practices discuss and degrade disability – the “placing hands on people” or “praying hard enough” to be healed/cured mentality (that never works – shocker!).

3)  How we have stigmatized disability/illness in our community by downplaying the impact it has on those we love & not wanting to watch or see them “suffer.”

That avoidance is selfishness – it is about OUR uncomfortable nature; and we, intentionally or not, project that to our loved ones about their bodies and disabilities.

Yes, Aunt Vi is my fave QS character, but I also want to see her journey with an illness to be flushed out and done correctly.  Why?

BECAUSE BLACK WOMEN/FEMMES HAVE DISABILITIES AND ILLNESSES!

One thing I noticed is that we do not give BW/femmes the space to openly discuss or accept their disabled bodies, regardless of if their disabilities are visible or invisible (non-apparent).

I see BW/femmes whom I’m friends with on here talk about their disabilities/illnesses openly and DO NOT identify as or realize that they are disabled and/or spoonies.

So, for me, as someone who is always looking at gaps due to my social worker & disabled woman lens, I plan to change that by developing a series on my Patreon that’ll dive into this very thing.  

Black women/femmes, esp., need to be given the space to share their stories AND know from those they love that their disabilities/illnesses are NOT imperfections; it’s a part of who they are, just like their 4C hair or shapely hips.  

If we constantly state to “love Black women/femmes,” then that needs to include when they are disabled as well.  We can’t wish for their disabilities to be “reversed” because it’ll make US, not THEM, feel better.  

I know Aunt Vi is a fictional character, but art imitates life – there are BW/femmes out here who are being told by their families that their “broken” bodies are “too much” to deal with or hear about.  

This creates and breeds silence, loneliness, and isolation – all of things that can be more detrimental than the actual disabilities/illnesses themselves.  If you don’t think so… you haven’t read compelling pieces by Black disabled women/femmes on the matter.

Aunt Vi, AND all of us, deserve better.  We deserve candid conversations about disability/illness – not just merely whisper about it, hoping to not disturb or cause frustration to other people who don’t want to see us in our entirety. 

Why Black Disability History Matters

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Black background with the following text in white font: “Why Black Disability History Matters During Black History Month”

For the past few years on the blog, I have featured the stories and activism of Black disabled figures who are unsung heroes during Black History Month.  I began doing this because I did not want our experiences as Black disabled people to be overlooked since that has occurred for far too long.  If we do not take the time to celebrate our trailblazers during and outside of February, who will?  

The responses to the features over the years were astounding – the appreciation of spotlighting Black disabled achievers were seen from within and outside of disability spaces.  What struck me was the anger some felt about not knowing Black disabled figures and their accomplishments; the erasure showed me that it was not just Black disabled folks like myself who needed to read these pieces.  Recognizing our place in history DO matter.    

This year, I wanted to take a different approach and asked a few of my fellow Black disabled friends and colleagues the following statement:  “Explain why Black Disability History matters to you during Black History Month.”  Each of them gave a perspective that resonated with the very reason I started doing this on the blog, and I hope it energizes each of you to seek out Black disabled figures, past and present, and uplift their work and place in Black history.  

From our own voices, why Black Disability History matters:  

Heather Watkins, writer and disabled mom, made the poignant statement about where our history fits:  

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 they’re 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 disabled Black history-makers 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.

Loryn Wilson Carter, digital strategist and writer, states that we deserve to be seen:  

Black disabled people deserve to be seen and they deserve to be included as part of our rich history. Not including us is to deny our very existence and deny our worth and our accomplishments. And also, it implies that Black people cannot also be disabled which is patently false. Celebrating all kinds of Blackness and Black excellence MUST include Black disabled people.

Writer and journalist Keah Brown & political consultant Neal Carter both discussed the erasure impact of historical figures being disabled:  

For me, it always matters but it matters most in this month because it’s often ignored.  I think now more than ever we deserve the chance to be acknowledged.

– Keah

Black Disability History matters because the stories of black disabled people are often cast aside as a result of history not being fully explained. We aren’t taught that Harriet Tubman, Fred Hampton and many figures in black history are disabled.

– Neal

Writer Imani Barbarin shares that our history is one of leadership, advocacy, and survival:  

Black Disability History is the story of leadership, advocacy and survival. As a child, the people I looked up to came up in the form of older disabled black women I would see at church. As I grew up I became aware of the vast legacy of black disabled people of the past to the future; Harriet Tubman to the Vilissa Thompsons and Talila Lewis’s of the world.

The importance of representation, as author Sophia Chester describes, cannot be dismissed:

Black Disability History means a lot to me as a disabled person. I was born with cystic hygroma. I’m blind in my left eye and i’m deaf in my left ear.  Each February when black history month comes around we only seem to celebrate the same three people. You already know who they are so repeat after me, MLK, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. It’s always this same narrative every February where we celebrate the achievements of those who are able bodied. I think that this narrative needs to change. I believe that if I had seen myself represented during Black History month as a child i would have felt much better about myself. I’ve always felt like I was alone and that there weren’t as many disabled people in the world. Now that I’m older I know that simply isn’t true but I wish I knew then what I know now.

Video gamer André Daughtry’s statement resonated with me because you cannot just see us as only our parts, but as whole beings:

Black Disability History matters because I’m not Black but/or disabled, I’m Black and disabled all day, every day.

I know next to nothing about BDH within the larger context of BHM and that to me is rather shameful, having a part of my experience and existence swept under the rug.  

The overarching themes from everyone are:  we have always been here, our voices and work will not be ignored, and you will put some respect on our names.

To learn more from those featured, you can find them all on Twitter by clicking their names:  Heather, Loryn, Keah, Neal, Imani, Sophia, and André.  

2/28/2018 Black Disability History Twitter Chat

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White graphic with black text that reads, “#BlackDisabilityHistory Twitter Chat, February 28, 2018, 4 pm Pacific / 7 pm Eastern, Follow @VilissaThompson @Imani_Barbarin @nealcarter and @DisVisibility” On the left is an illustration of the Twitter bird icon in black. On the right is an illustration of a fist raised in defiance in black.

White graphic with black text that reads, “#BlackDisabilityHistory Twitter Chat, February 28, 2018, 4 pm Pacific / 7 pm Eastern, Follow @VilissaThompson @Imani_Barbarin @nealcarter and @DisVisibility” On the left is an illustration of the Twitter bird icon in black. On the right is an illustration of a fist raised in defiance in black.

For Black History Month, I am honored to co-host a #BlackDisabilityHistory Twitter chat with members of my community.  If you have been following the blog for awhile, you know that February is special to me in amplifying the visibility and accomplishments of Black disabled people during Black History Month.  This Twitter chat is another means of continuing this effort, and I hope that you will join us on Wednesday, February 28th at 7pm EST / 4pm PST.

Details and questions that will be asked during the chat are below.

* * *

Vilissa K. Thompson, Imani Barbarin and Neal Carter are co-hosting a Twitter chat on Black disability history. The Disability Visibility Project® will be playing a supporting role in this chat. All are welcome to participate, in particular Black disabled people and disabled people of color. Details below on how to participate and the chat’s questions.

How to Participate

Follow @VilissaThompson @Imani_Barbarin  @nealcarter and @DisVisibility on Twitter. Use these 2 hashtags during the chat: #BlackDisabilityHistory #BlackHistoryMonth

Each question will be 6-7 minutes apart. If the chat becomes too overwhelming, you can find the questions on @DisVisibility’s timeline and pinned at the top.

Check out this explanation of how to participate in a Twitter chat by Ruti Regan: https://storify.com/RutiRegan/examplechat

Check out this captioned ASL explanation of how to participate in a chat by @behearddc
https://www.facebook.com/HEARDDC/videos/1181213075257528/

Introductory Tweets and Questions

Welcome to the #BlackDisabilityHistory chat hosted by  @VilissaThompson @Imani_Barbarin  @nealcarter and @DisVisibility.  #BlackHistoryMonth

FYI: we will be using 2 hashtags during the chat. If you respond to a question such as Q1, your tweet should follow this format: “A1 [your message] #BlackDisabilityHistory #BlackHistoryMonth”

Q1 Welcome! Please introduce yourself. What has #BlackHistoryMonth has been like for you this year? #BlackDisabilityHistory  

Q2 What does #BlackDisabilityHistory mean to you? How much of it have you seen in your reading and understanding of Black history? #BlackHistoryMonth

Q3 Who are some figures in #BlackDisabilityHistory EVERYONE should know about? What are some moments in #BlackDisabilityHistory that are essential to history of this country?  #BlackHistoryMonth

Q4 What is the role of colonialism, antiblackness, racism, ableism, capitalism, and white supremacy in the erasure and marginalization of #BlackDisabilityHistory? #BlackHistoryMonth

Q5 If you are a Black disabled person, is there a story or personal history that you would like to share? #BlackDisabilityHistory #BlackHistoryMonth

Q6 How can we encourage people to create and celebrate Black disabled stories and history? What are some stories and issues today that we need to amplify? #BlackDisabilityHistory #BlackHistoryMonth

Q7 Disability history and media has a #DisabilityTooWhite problem. What changes would you like to see when it comes to disability representation in media and scholarship? #BlackDisabilityHistory #BlackHistoryMonth

Q8 Every month should be #BlackHistoryMonth. What are some ways we can continue the visibility of #BlackDisabilityHistory every single day?

Thank you for joining the #BlackDisabilityHistory chat! Please keep the conversation going.  

My 2017 Was Lit!:  Year in Reflection

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Image of 2 cliffs: cliff on the left has 2017 and cliff on the right has 2018. In the middle of the cliff is an animated person leaping towards the cliff with 2018.

Today is the last day of 2017, and as I reflect, I am amazed at all I have experienced.  

This was the year where all of my hard work has come to life, with so many collaborations, interviews, and awesome people I have encountered.  

Even the small hiccups did not derail me – I believe being older and unbothered by foolishness allowed me to remain steadfast.  

Despite the political upheaval, 2017 was very good to and for me.  I know some of us are apprehensive to state if we had wins this year, but please, do not be – celebrate yourself and the good things that transpired for you.  

What were some of my wins in 2017?

  • My traveling game was on a new level.  Visited both coasts, & the major regions of the country.  I never imagined any of these trips in January.  Though I was tired when all of the traveling ended, being a jetsetter has been a goal of mine for the longest.  I look forward for more trips in 2018, hopefully even an international trip that’s in the making.  
  • Being interviewed by creators and podcasters, especially Black women and Blerds.  Emerging myself into Blerd spaces has been a blessing, particularly to connect with other Black women/femmes and develop friendships with them.  Making time to bond with them is important to me because I need more Black women/femmes in my life, and I’ve been unapologetic about doing this.  
  • Receiving awards and recognition for my work.  I’ll let you in on a small secret – I’m the worst at accepting praise for what I do.  I’m better at uplifting/supporting others, but tend to shy away from receiving it in return.  This year, however, has challenged me to work on that, and soak in the love and admiration people have about what I do and why it’s important.  
  • Connecting with influential companies/organizations and individuals.  I have been able to interact with some awesome entities and people that are spearheading trailblazing campaigns and projects.  I am looking forward for some of those interactions to be brought to life in 2018.
  • Living my best carefree disabled Black girl life.  I have grown so much on a personal level.  It is something about being in your 30s that makes you take charge of your joy, time, energy, and peace.  I am out here fulfilling my purpose and taking no shit.  I am out here doing the damn thing, and I have just scratched the surface.  The personal gains I have made, along with the professionals wins, are beyond my wildest dreams, and I thank God for the blessings that will continue to flow.  

I am just so grateful for a busy, robust year.  I know the blog has been quiet, and I missed writing consistently.  However, I believe in quality or quantity, especially when life gets hectic and I may not have the time to devote myself to a piece.  I have a number of blog posts I plan to write, and I am ready to give it to you all.  

Also, I will be launching my Patreon in the first part of the year, so a lot of the blog series ideas I have will be there, as well as other content.  Patreon will be my way of sharing my work and giving you all a “behind the scenes” view of my life.  I am excited about doing this, and I hope you are too.  

Basically, I am nowhere near done – I have just gotten revved up in 2017.  2018 better watch out; I will be taking risks, expanding my brand and voice, and trying new avenues.  I hope you are ready to join me on the ride – buckle up, buttercups!  

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Pixabay.)

Tackling Inaccessibility in Seattle & NYC: My Travels on 4 Wheels

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Nighttime view of the Space Needle in Seattle, WA.

This month has been full of so many phenomenal things.  September is a special time for me for two reasons:  my birthday and the start of autumn.  

For both my birthday and the season changing, I was bi-coastal – I spent the first full week in celebrating year 32 in Seattle and then set off to tackle the Big Apple.  

Seattle allowed me to be in the same place with every member of the Rooted in Rights team, and boy, did we have a blast.  Of course, there was work to be done, but it was nice to finally be able to see everyone that I have gotten to know since I took the position as Digital Manager in May.  Seattle was giving fall vibes before the season came to be; vastly different from the 80+ degrees I was enjoying in South Carolina.  

Photo of me smiling into the camera with the best pizza of my life plated in front of me. Who knew Seattle had good pizza?!?!

Right when I came back home this past Sunday, I got a day to breathe before I was jet-setting to NYC to speak on a panel for NYU School of Law.  The panel was made up of 4 individuals who discussed the complications of employment and disability, and provided real-life examples of how systemic barriers hinder our community.  I was very proud of the responses I received regarding what I shared about SSI, Voc Rehab, how we view productivity and worthiness, the disparities of disabled people of color and unemployment, and my own experiences in seeking employment.  What made me feel as if I did a good job was the responses from actually disabled people who attended the event – what I shared pertained to the issues and challenges they also endured in gaining employment in their state and how access has impacted their ability to not only retain work, but also supports in education and transportation.  

Snapshot of the image of the program for the NYU School of Law event. My photo plus biography information are provided.

Wheelchair User Woes

One of the things I love and hate about traveling is the constant worry about accessibility, particularly navigating an unfamiliar area and not knowing what is or is not wheelchair friendly.  In both Seattle and NYC, I encountered inaccessibility that looked differently due to the structural makeup of the areas and how much of a “priority” has been given to be accessible.  

What were the differences I encountered?  

Inaccessibility Throws A Monkey Wrench In My Plans Every Time

For Seattle, two words:  steep inclines.  I cannot explain how it feels to be falling forward due to gravity… when you’re not falling at all.  As a manual wheelchair user, I am pretty good at handling myself with hills, but these were not normal hills – these were man-made death traps.  I knew it was a setup when a colleague and I have been discussing how bad the inclines were since this trip had been planned.  

I was not ready.  

Thankfully, I did have assistance the first day these inclines were tackled, but it left me leery of venturing out on my own after that.  I mainly took Uber or the accessible cab service for the rest of the trip, and luckily had my friend Dara Baldwin with me when we explored the city.  Seattle has beautiful views of its harbor, but it is not so nice on these 4 wheels of mine.  

Me & Dara Baldwin in front of the Public Market Center in Seattle, WA.

NYC did not have the steep hills, but did have cracked, jadad sidewalks that welcomed this Southern belle with open arms.  As I learned from a friend, I definitely was not in the “touristy” part of NYC – I saw the REAL NYC, lol.  

Being from the South, I have seen many areas redesign their sidewalks to make it more accessible.  Even in my hometown, the downtown area has been renovated and the sidewalks are navigable without many issues.  

In the area I was traveled with a friend after the panel event, the sidewalks were a mess.  The crowded sidewalks did not bother me much – I am used to walkers (what I call those who do not use assistive devices) being in my way.  However, it was the broken and/or raised areas in the sidewalks that got to me and had to wheel around.  Also, finding the curb cuts was a challenge since they were not colored in some areas.  (This was also an issue I saw in Seattle, particularly in the areas that were not downtown.)  Having the curb cuts colored with a bright color makes them easier to spot and helps us determine which way to go in crossing the street.  This may seem like a minor detail to you as a walker, but to someone like me (and many others), this feature means a great deal.  

The one thing both cities had in common was me encountering wheelchair inaccessible venues.  In Seattle, I tweeted to Subway about the huge step in one of its establishments that was near my hotel.  For a chain like Subway, it was indeed unacceptable and upsetting to not be able to patron with ease.  In 2017, I should not have to stay in the doorway to have my order fulfilled because of a step.

In NYC, the Italian restaurant we chose to dine at also had a huge step.  Though I am not a fan of being picked up, I did allow it because I felt safe in the moment.  The staff was nice and took good care of us while we were there, so that was a bonus for me.  

Refusing to be Second-Class Because of Accessibility Issues

Yes, I did frequent these places because their lack of thought to include people like me is not going to prevent me from living my life as I desire.  Your steps will not keep me out – I will make you find a way to serve me as a patron.  27 years after the ADA, and now with the ADA being threatened with the HR620 bill, and I am STILL fighting to get in and be recognized.  Let that sink in.  

Traveling to other parts of the country has, and will, afforded me to examine how cities and towns have or have not prioritized being ADA compliant.  I plan to document my traveling adventures on here and on Patreon (which will be up soon!) because I will be leaving tire treads in many cities in the upcoming year.  

Despite the headaches of travel when it comes to getting around, I am fortunate to now have the chance to see the world up close and personal.  Nothing, not even raggedy behind sidewalks or inconveniently placed steps, can take those awe moments away from me.

Get ready – these wheels may be coming to a city near you.   

4 Years Going Strong:  RYV! Anniversary Reflection

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Image description: Top of a chocolate cake with candles lit. Candles are curved and multi-colored.

Image description: Top of a chocolate cake with candles lit. Candles are curved and multi-colored.

Today marks the fourth anniversary of Ramp Your Voice!  The past year has been filled with so many opportunities, connections, partnerships, and articles that has resonated with individuals within and outside of the disabled community.  

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