Black and Disabled: Hypervisible Invisibility
By Anthony J. Williams @anthoknees
I see myself, my friends, and my family in hashtag after hashtag and in history books full of our lynched ancestors. I read a lot. I know who we are. I also know who I am. I know that I am because we are. And I am a loving queer Black man who struggles with depression on a daily basis, with just a touch of anxiety to round it out. You wouldn’t guess when you see me dance until I lose my breath or by my goofy smile as I watch my partner fall asleep. The way I rattle off the achievements on my CV makes folks wonder how I could ever feel like I don’t want to be on this earth. I don’t, though. Often I want a way out of this life. Not suicide. I just want out. I’m employed, I’m in good health, I’m fed, I’m housed, I’m clean, and I still sometimes want out.
Regardless of the race or ethnicity of the person, the oh my god, it’s a nigger expression is difficult to describe, but even more difficult to forget. That look of lily white shock (it’s usually the face of a white woman). That peach-colored fear of a white man’s furrowed brow. That wide-eyed glare of a person of color’s grimace. Their fear of my Blackness has inspired folks to almost fall off sidewalks to avoid me, speed up their pace as they link arms with their friends, or quickly grasp their chest before exhaling. They don’t have to fix their lips to mouth “nigger” or “negro.” Their pupils dilate larger than I knew was possible. Their necks become a congested highway of blood and veins. Their body language tells me everything I need to know. They fear me; a man who stands a little less than five foot, seven inches and fluctuates between 145 and 150 pounds. I might laugh about it more often if it wasn’t the recipe for a potential death sentence. Folks like us don’t get descriptions with the word “angel” in them unless “no” precedes it, even when we have done nothing wrong.
I am not ashamed of my depression. I am not ashamed of my anxiety. I am not ashamed of feeling helpless. Or at least, I try not to be ashamed, I try not to doubt myself. The task of hope is difficult early in the morning as I scroll through Twitter, discovering new hashtags. My depression seduces me to my bed at 6 p.m., only to curl up in a ball and not leave for the rest of the night. My ego allows me to tweet about my debilitating depression, but not text a friend about it. Often I refuse help, only to go about writing about my depression online. The idea that I have a disability and I need assistance or support is one I still battle with. Actually asking for help is not always so easy. Day by day, though, I recognize that my Blackness, my queerness, and my disability are more of a liability than I ever realized. At least one-third of the Black folks killed by the police last year were disabled. We keep reiterating to people that our Black lives matter, but if they don’t care about Black folks who are able-bodied, they definitely don’t care about our Black disabled lives. The white capitalist gaze knowingly reduces all Black folks to less-than-human. Given that, I know that my disability, my queerness, and my intellect disappear behind an oversimplified idea of Blackness.
Truthfully, the only people who have consistently cared about any sort of collective Black pain are Black people. Black pain fuels the well-oiled mechanisms of capitalist white supremacy, a system that people of color help operate as well. I often wonder, what has changed since lynching postcards? Well, at one point we were shocked by the open-casket photo of 14-year old Emmett Till that Mamie Till made us bear witness to. More recently, Rodney King’s blood started a whole new generation. And today, today we are on the cover of The Daily Beast and The NY Daily News, but this serves not to honor those lynched but to desensitize us to a public genocide of a people. Our Black bodies are still being lynched and you can even catch us as dead animated GIFs. My mental health has declined in the last two years, and severe depression and general anxiety disorder are not the full stories. I’ve been actively consuming Black death to educate people on anti-Blackness and white supremacy. When a Black person is killed, I often know about all of the gruesome details within mere minutes or hours. I begin to memorize the intricacies of their stories. I try to avoid the idea that that person could have been a loved one of mine so that it hurts just a little less. I try to break the connection between me and them so that I can continue to leave my house every day. Black pain is clicks, lynchings are likes, and all of this results in revenue that, when I really think about it, just makes me feel sadder. And angry. And small.
My physical frame reflects that same small feeling. I carry myself with confidence that could be intimidating, however, that’s as far as it goes. Anyone who has met me in person would crack a smile if I dared call myself or my presence “scary.” The funny (read: tragic) thing about Blackness is that it overrides all of that background information that informs how I move throughout the world. The poster child for depression is a sad white man with his hands at his temples. My slightly crooked afro with the tinge of red in it from when I dyed it for the first time in October of last year doesn’t shout depression. My almond shaped eyes, the color of mahogany accentuated by the eyelashes my mother has always loved don’t scream anxiety. My jet black eyebrows that got me called a pretty boy almost ten years ago in high school echo my perfectionism. All of this is framed on a dark brown face with a thick mustache and goatee that transforms my typically boyish appearance into that of a grown ass man. All of this personality gets reduced down to my Black body, removing any sense of agency, innocence, or humanity from me with the white gaze. All of this combined makes me a magical negro, and as such, one who feels less pain.
I try not to hang outside for too long to reduce the risk and strength of the violence of whiteness. I grew up in the suburbs, but my mom always told me that trouble happens if you’re hanging around outside with nothing to do. This can be true, but I always think of folks like John Crawford III. Folks minding their own business in Walmart who end up blamed for the death of white women, when they themselves are also shot. I also avoid heavily policed areas. This reduces the chances of my heart trying to escape my shirt as my thoughts play FTP on repeat, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. So I make an active effort to hang out in Black and brown spaces. Although I sometimes wonder about my queerness, I generally feel more comfortable around folks like me. There’s an adage that says if you see Black people running away from something, run with them. While the risk of violence against us is higher, with larger numbers of us, the similar lived experience we share allows me to focus less on the thought of violence and more on Black joy. Yet, even as I go out of my way to stay safe, I have learned that there is no safety.
I am because we are, which means that I do not possess a particularly exceptional type of Blackness. I am not the talented tenth, nor do I want to be. My UC Berkeley degree, my military upbringing, and my perceived preppiness do not shield me from violence because Blackness is not allowed nuance. The depression and anxiety that kept me in my car for thirty minutes before I could enter the coffee shop last month are deemed unimportant. Even when I try to decenter the violence of whiteness in this police state, it still seeks me and those I love, ignoring even my disability. No amount of prayer or clever wordplay could stop any fatal interactions with the pigs from being labeled an “officer-involved shooting.” I am a Black man; I’m not allowed to be weak. And sometimes, sometimes I want out.
Anthony J. Williams is a writer, editor, researcher, and organizer. Anthony is also a proud Black queer man whose lifetime goal is to dismantle interlocking systems of oppression such as heteropatriarchy and white supremacy. Anthony’s work has been published in The Independent, East Bay Express, Black Girl Dangerous,Third Women Press, and more. He currently works as Editor-in-Chief of the Afrikan Black Coalition and intends to obtain a Ph.D. in Sociology & Africana Studies, following his BA from UC Berkeley in Sociology, Theatre, and Performance Studies.