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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: December 2017

11 - Race and Disability in US Literature


In “Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal” (2006), Chris Bell challenged the field to recognize its pervasive whiteness, in large measure by addressing its dearth of engagement with concerns of disabled people of color, and by critically integrating and participating in race and ethnic scholarship more broadly. Over the past decade since this critique, a good deal of work has been done in this area. Bell's 2011 edited book, Blackness and Disability, was an early contribution, and many scholars such as Jennifer James, Sami Schalk, Anna Mollow, Therí Pickens, Cindy Wu, and Ellen Samuels, to name a few, have made substantive contributions to literary analyses of disability and race. Nirmala Erevelles, working in education, has been a driving force in disability studies to push for greater attention to the intersecting material effects of race, ethnicity, class, and disability in national and global contexts. In a recent meditation upon the growth of the field, rather than hoping for something more abstract or edgy, Erevelles dreams of a “future that is simply more accountable” to the complex material intersections of disability and race. In this spirit of accountability, and in an effort to return to Bell's critique, I ground my approach to disability studies in critical race, especially black feminist, theories. Disability studies owes a great debt to civil rights activism and critical race theories, and while this debt is largely acknowledged, it is often more gestural than substantive. Also, although disability studies scholars have rightly called attention to ableism embedded at times in racial justice activism and theory, we need to extend these critiques toward relational, not oppositional, approaches to disability and race, approaches that highlight new knowledge but also engage with pain, suffering, and the violent production of disability.

Because the fault line of racial tension falls so explicitly along a black/white divide in the United States, this essay focuses heavily on blackness and disability, and draws largely from African American literature. The urgency of material accountability is also shaped by contemporary racial injustice.

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The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability
  • Online ISBN: 9781316104316
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