Emmett Till & the Pervasive Erasure of Disability In Conversations about White Supremacy & Police Violence
Content Warning: Discussion of white supremacist violence & police brutality.
Today, I answer Eve Ewing’s early morning call to “honestly reckon with history.” I will name and address one issue in brief and earnest because revisionist history and disability erasure will be the death of countless more if we do not answer this call.
In August of 1955, white supremacists kidnapped, tortured and murdered Emmett Louis Till after a white woman claimed that Till whistled at her. A jury required less than one hour to come back with a “not guilty” verdict. This week, more than sixty years since Emmett Till’s mutilated fourteen year old body was pulled from the muddy Tallahatchie River, the woman who concocted the story that led to Emmett Till’s murder finally confessed that she lied. Her “revelation” has caused a flurry of discussions and articles about white supremacy and police violence — which are in the United States, forever inextricably linked.
For many, it is impossible to ignore the parallels between this case, its outcome, and countless recent cases involving law enforcement murdering young people (often on camera) with no consequence. Many Disabled/Deaf community builders continue to warn that the failure to approach these discussions with a disability justice lens — understanding, discussing and addressing the real and deadly links between racism, ableism, white supremacy and police violence — will lead to more death.
Countless survivors and victims of white terror and police brutality were targeted because of their race, disability, class and other identities. Anyone who says otherwise is not being honest about the history and longevity of ableism, racism, classism in this “nation.” That, or perhaps they are unclear about how each of those oppressions is woven into the fabric of white supremacy and how each undergirds the other.
So intertwined are these oppressions that any attempt to rid the nation of racism without doing away with ableism yields practically nothing. The same is true in reverse. Disabled communities attempting to rid the nation of ableism find themselves having made very little headway because they are still practicing racism.
In fact, for the past several years, more than half of those killed by “law enforcement” in the United States have been disabled/deaf individuals. This group of victims is also comprised disproportionately of Black, Indigenous, Latinx people and people from other marginalized communities including low/no income and trans communities. Many have written about the alarmingly disproportionate representation of disabled people of color in statistics ranging from suspensions to state-sanctioned executions. And yet we continue to thoughtlessly erase their identities — and thus their humanity.
By this I mean that narratives shared by people of color (including “social justice activists”) about disabled victims of white terror and police brutality who also are of color erase Disability/Deafness and other aspects of these individuals’ identities. These intersections are precisely what made these victims prime targets for violence. Similarly, the narratives shared about these victims by the vast majority of disabled people (including “disability/deaf rights activists”) erase Blackness/indigeneity altogether — again ignoring the very intersection of these individuals’ identities that made them susceptible to this violence in the first place.
Although society has a tendency to erase the Disability of Black Disabled people (See, Audre Lorde, Barbara Jordan, Brad Lomax, Darnell Wicker, Eric Garner, Fannie Lou Hamer, Freddie Gray Jr., George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Harry Belafonte, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Jazzie Collins, Jesse Washington, Keith Lamont Scott, Korryn Gaines, Laquan McDonald, Maya Angelou, Sandra Bland, Simone Biles, Wilma Rudolph, Whoopi Goldberg, and countless others), studies show that disability is more prevalent in communities of color and low/no income communities — in large part because of the ways that racism and classism operate.
If you are not aware, please note that Black Disabled/Deaf people take pride in Blackness, Disability and Deafness just the same; and none of these identities should ever be erased.
Now for a bit of pertinent U.S. history (I actually refer to U.S. history as race-disability history):
Polio was far-reaching in the United States from the early to mid-1900’s. Notably, polio medical and rehabilitation centers during the same time were segregated by race; and eugenicists described polio as a “white disease” that Black people could not contract (these are the same eugenicists who created scientific racism-ableism). Since polio did not discriminate like those who craft the policies of this nation, Black people who contracted or survived polio were not provided adequate medical care or rehabilitation support. Black organizers ensured an increase in the visibility of Black polio survivors which spurred philanthropic and institutional support for medical and rehabilitative support for Black people with polio; and Tuskegee Institute opened its polio center in the 1940’s. Numerous people have written about this particular chapter of medical/scientific racism-ableism, so I will not delve any further.
I introduce this only to share with some and to remind others that Emmett Till survived a bout of polio. Like many survivors, he experienced post-polio symptoms that affected his daily life activities. In his case, he acquired a speech disability that stayed with him until his death. His mother, Mamie Till, recounted having taught him different techniques, including whistling, to clear his passage and speak through his speech disability — which was more pronounced when he was nervous or in particularly stressful situations. His mother and cousins also maintain that Emmett Till struggled with certain letters and his pronunciation sometimes actually sounded like a whistle.
We also know that Emmett Till was outgoing and funny. He was full of jokes, pranks and smiles — always trying to make those around him laugh, his cousins and friends report. He was so good at telling jokes that people would pay him to tell jokes. Stories shared by those who knew him for his very brief lifetime remind me so much of other Black Disabled youth who, with all that is in them, try not to allow our racist-ableist society to steal their joy. Alas, white supremacy has a cruel way of dealing with our Black Disabled children — especially those who try their utmost to live fully & freely.
Post-murder, these children are regarded as “hulk-like,” “towering,” “incapable of feeling pain,” “menacing,” and “dangerously noncompliant,” among other adjectives. The hyper-fetishized stories spun by “concerned neighbors” and “vigilant[e] neighborhood watchmen” are so out of touch with reality that these children’s family members would not recognize the child if the story were to somehow come to life. Unfortunately, the legal system, like society, is mired in racism and ableism, so prosecutors, judges, juries, and yes, even defense attorneys, often buy into the myth that a Black Disabled child could become superhuman and inhuman all at once. We convince ourselves that these children are not deserving of laughter, liberty and life and sit idly by while they are abused and murdered with reckless abandon (by the state, no less).
Race and Disability. The most dangerous intersection history has ever held. All that seems to exists there is violence, erasure and murder with impunity.
The truth is that it is exceedingly rare to find a victim or survivor of violence who was targeted for just one part of their identity. Past and present victims of white terror and police violence were/are more often than not multiply-marginalized. Therefore, any conversation about their murder that does not recognize and honor their multiple identities dishonors them through and through. We actually deal a heavy blow to our own liberation struggles when we engage in this kind of violent erasure.
This is why disability solidarity is critical for our collective liberation.
Disability solidarity means that we are all advancing intersectional justice — that Disabled folks are working hard to achieve racial justice, economic justice, gender justice, etc.; and Black folks are holding ourselves accountable for disability justice, immigrant justice, indigenous justice, etc. Disability solidarity means the folks fighting for racial justice and disability justice are one and the same. In this way, no one is left behind.
Disability solidarity encapsulates the lived experience of Emmett Till and millions of Disabled youth of color living at the intersection he once occupied. These are the youth who continue to be profiled, criminalized, and killed for existing. They deserve to have their whole humanity affirmed. Disability solidarity saves lives and makes room for laughter, love and freedom at an intersection that does not have to continue to be the most dangerous intersection that we’ve ever held.
Disability solidarity honors our ancestors; affirms our present struggles and gives credence to dreams of our children — born & yet unborn.
It is high time for a reckoning with this nation’s sordid history. Ableism, racism, classism and white supremacy is a damn good place to start.