In the era before cesarean sections became the norm in my Florida Panhandle hometown, my closest kin learned an outsized, stubborn head, forceps, and a breech birth do not mix well. From that moment to this one, Erb’s palsy has commingled with a black Southern womanishness in the man whose voice carries these musings. I have acquired autoimmune and anxiety disorders that a disease to please has helped blossom in the last half of the nearly four decades hence. A committed relationship to black Americans’ syncretic faith practices makes these companions easier to bear. Sacrilegion, my first book, began rumbling inside me a decade ago in New York City at the AWP conference, as I met many people in those halls who would serve as midwives and doulas as the work entered the world in January 2013. Then, most recently, at the March 2018 AWP conference I presented on the panel “Complex Narratives: A VIDA Voices and Views Disability Focus Interview.” The handout I gave contained what may be the most successful poem in the book that made my presence on the panel make the most sense. I say this because I did not grow up in my original family with the word “disabled” on my lips. Some might have whispered “cripple” around me in that town until they got their asses whipped on football, baseball, or soccer fields or tennis courts or lost a typing contest or the chance to be the featured trumpet soloist to me. Until I began teaching at a university 17 months ago where parking spaces are sparse (not unlike many, I suspect), I hadn’t taken advantage of the opportunity to use a blue hanger in my car and simplify my commute to my office and classrooms with the overload of books I often carry. During the panel, not only did I read, “What Did You Do to Yourself?: Finding Fault,” but I also shared two lyrics that precede it that made its cumulative humor and pathos possible.
While these and other poems in Sacrilegion document a black child’s journey into manhood through several valences of “disability,” it also aims to mark the ways rural black people love one another and their gods in the face of what appears to be of great difficulty. My story aims to be a cipher, as it were, for naming and exorcising the shame that had been tacitly internalized because of others’ perceived gaze. In retrospect, I often wonder if the love I tried to savor in those poems might have gotten lost in their moments of despair. Over the past 17 months, then, I have been working harder to center the healing touch, affirmation, and wisdom the men and women of that town imparted, which feel increasingly prescient. One of the included poems previously appeared ina hybrid text titled Prime,which I published with friends, that reaches into the spaces this new book I’m completing aims to rest more comfortably.
While it remains true that I’m still working out my daddy issues, I’m also trying to honor the charge scholar Hortense Spillers gives to critical readers of African American literature and, implicitly, to creative writers in her 1987 essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”:
This human and historic development—the text that has been inscribed on the benighted heart of the continent—takes us to the center of an inexorable difference in the depths of American women’s community: The African-American woman, the mother, the daughter, becomes historically the powerful and shadowy evocation of a cultural synthesis long evaporated—the law of the Mother—only and precisely because legal enslavement removed the African-American male not so much from sight as from mimetic view as a partner in the prevailing social fiction of the Father’s name, the Father’s law. Therefore, the female, in this order of things, breaks in upon the imagination with a forcefulness that marks both a denial and an ‘illegitimacy.’ Because of this peculiar American denial, the black American male embodies the only American community of males which has had the specific occasion to learn who the female is within itself, the infant child who bears the life against the could-be fateful gamble, against the odds of pulverization and murder, including her own. It is the heritage of the mother that the African-American male must regain as an aspect of his own personhood—the power of ‘yes’ to the ‘female’ within. (80)
Saying ‘yes’ to the power of the female within does not involve a changing of pronouns for me, as I remain cis male, if “too pretty to be a boy” to some. (Danez Smith, Paul Tran, Noor Ibn Jaber, and a host of amazing young writers are doing that important work; the embrace of Don’t Call Us Dead proves—as Citizen did before it—that we are long past the days when we need to begin having this conversation about “disability” differently, reflecting that we are more transparently aware of intersectionality than we demonstrate.) In preparing this talk, though, I realized only one persona poem in Sacrilegion was not in a black woman’s voice, but none were in the voices of the women in those communities—Long Bottom, Burden Hill, Buckhorn—that raised me. I know those voices well. They coaxed and soothed and scolded. They stir me still, especially now that I must reach into my memory to hear what death has taken, one by one, since days before Carolina Wren Press, now known as Blair Publishing, selected Sacrilegion for its poetry series. Black women’s voices are poised to goad us to mobilize as the dystopic end to America’s fictional narrative of republican democracy approaches. In her award-winning White Rage and several essays that responded to the past 13 months of mayhem, Emory University professor Carol Anderson diagnoses a more urgent valence of disability that creative writers must hasten to address. In an August 13th, 2017, essay published in The Guardian, Anderson opines:
We [must] come to grips with the reality that we are seeing the effects of far too many Americans strung out on the most pervasive, devastating, reality-warping drug to ever hit the United States: white supremacy. Like all forms of substance abuse, it has destroyed families and communities and put enormous strains on governmental institutions. It has made millions of Americans forsake their God and jettison their patriotism just to get a taste. High on its effects, its users feel powerful, heady, even as they and everything around them disintegrates. And, as with most drug crises, while not everyone may be strung out, everyone is very surely affected. In 2017, millions of Americans are hooked on this drug. As clearly as track marks in the arms, the most visible signs are all around us. … The 2016 election brought that into stark relief as voters flocked to Donald Trump, despite his explicit racism or, just as important, because of it. His birther harangues lent him a stature among hardcore supporters that no other candidate could match. … Republicans have convinced themselves, as addicts do, that they’re still in charge, that they’re getting out of this what they’ve always wanted – tax cuts for the rich, eventual destruction of the Affordable Care Act, a supreme court that will overturn Roe v. Wade, and decisively fewer regulations on private industry – but none of these, if they were truly sober and in their right minds, are worth destroying the United States for. Yet, here we are. We’re not all addicted, but we’re surely enduring the consequences.
How have I managed, in this “disabled” body, to endure? I have called upon the wisdom I gleaned in my youth from the women, flora, and fauna of Long Bottom, Burden Hill, and Buckhorn. Whip-poor-wills taught me how to play dead, to do my work in the still of the night, as dawn looms. Women who were old when I was born and lived well beyond the biblical coup de gras of “reasonable strength of four score years” made sure I knew how to bake bread and make a pink pie, how to ride a mule, how to talk about white folk to their face and have them laugh with you, how to make a man obey. They lived through the second wave of white nationalist violence, commonly known as Jim Crow, at the turn of the last century. I’ve begun offering what I can of their voices, their lessons, as we find ourselves in the throes of another.
On this precipice of the end of the world as we knew it, I charge us to turn to the wisdom of black women around us, to get out of their way and elevate their voices. It’s not only in Wakanda or Ava DuVernay’s reimagining of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or any given story about white damsels in crisis (Gone With the Wind, The Member of Wedding, The Help) that black women save the day. Spillers reminds us that black women are the greatest gifts America has ever had, the only hope we have to take us into the unknown if we want to come out alive and kicking. Our critical elections in the past two years nationally and statewide make plain this truth.
So what can you do as white supremacy cripples this nation? Teach Mercy and let Lucille Clifton—who turned her extra fingers into spiritual antennae to channel wisdom from The Ones after 9/11—show us the way from here to whatever is next. And how can you know what may come next? If you think Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) fits the day’s zeitgeist, teach it alongside the books of the brilliant black mind that largely inspired it. It’s no secret Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1977) influenced Atwood’s decision to portend the return of the historical abuse of women in a not-too-distant future. But even more relevant now is Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which predicted in 1993 that a tyrant would run for president promising to “make America great again” and would lead the United States into a war that makes clean water and other resources obsolete. It and its sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998), have already let us know what would have happened in 2016, what lies ahead by 2025. So, in closing, I echo my dear sister Remica Bingham-Risher, whose presentation on the panel “Stay in Your Lane, Or…”also elevated Butler’s voice.
As Parable of the Sower opens, Butler’s 14-year-old protagonist, Lauren Olamina, realizes everything she’s been taught by her Baptist minister father is a lie and decides she must leave their barricaded home and disembark into unknown, precarious future, our present-day nightmare. I invite you to try an exercise in wakefulness by closing your eyes, if you feel safe and you’re able, as I leave you with a charge from Lauren in the form of a tweak of her opening words in Sower:
[We’re] learning to fly, to levitate [ourselves]. No one is teaching [us]. [We’re] just learning on [our] own, little by little, dream lesson by dream lesson. Not a very subtle image, but a persistent one. [We’ve] had many lessons, and [we’re] better at flying than [we] used to be. [We] trust [our] ability more now, but [we’re] still afraid. [We] can’t quite control [our] directions yet. [We] lean forward toward the doorway. It’s a doorway like the one between [our safe rooms and the halls leading to unknown portals]. It seems to be a long way from [us], but [we must] lean toward it. Holding [our disabled bodies] stiff and tense, [let’s] let go of whatever [we’re] grasping, whatever has kept [us] from rising or falling so far. And [let’s] lean into the air, straining upward, not moving upward, but not quite falling down, either. Then, [you’ll see, we’ll] begin to move, as though to slide on the air drifting a few feet above the floor, caught between terror and joy.
Now open your eyes. Imagine that. You can fly.
Revised from March 9, 2018, talk at AWP-Tampa.
L. LAMAR WILSON is the author of Sacrilegion (Carolina Wren Press, 2013) and Prime: Poetry and Conversation (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014), with Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Saeed Jones, Rickey Laurentiis, and Phillip B. Williams. He’s a recipient of fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation, the Callaloo Workshops, and the Blyden and Roberta Jackson Fund at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he’s completing a PhD in African American and multi-ethnic American poetics. Wilson, an Affrilachian Poet, teaches creative writing and African American poetics at The University of Alabama.