36 days until my exam. This week I’m switching from my “Music of the Black Atlantic” list to the other hundred sources I need to know, from my “Music and Disability Studies” list. I started this blog series to motivate myself to study while simultaneously providing content for friends interested in learning about racism, so this will continue to be a “Music of the Black Atlantic” blog. There are plenty of sources on my disability list that focus on race, so I will write about those in this series as well as others that don’t make race their cornerstone but tie to concepts I’ve covered.

The Disability Studies Reader: Davis, Lennard J.: 9781138930230 ...

Today’s entry will be the first to feature a chapter from The Disability Studies Reader (Davis 2013), a seminal text in the field of Disability Studies which I will return to in future entries. The Disability Studies Reader is interdisciplinary, with works by authors from many fields. None of the authors I’m reading about from this book are music researchers, but their work is nonetheless relevant, hence being included on my exam list. Douglas Baynton’s piece, featured today, is written from an historical perspective. It was originally published in The New Disability History: American Perspectives (2001).

Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History

Marchers with signs at the 1963 March on Washington
Marchers with signs at the March on Washington, 1963
Image: Library of Congress LC-U9- 10344-16
Marion S. Trikosko, photographer
(photo source)

Douglas Baynton’s work is featured as chapter one in The New Disability History and chapter two in The Disability Studies Reader – preceded only by an introduction from researcher/editor Lennard Davis. There is a reason for its prominent position in both books. Baynton steps back through American history to demonstrate how race, ethnicity, gender, and disability have been tied together in struggles for equality and how disability has been central to each of “the three great citizenship debates” of the 19th and early 20th century. Not only was disability used to justify inequality for disabled people themselves (“they can’t do X so they are not equal”), but also the concept of disability was used to justify inequality for other marginalized groups. In debates over women’s suffrage, African American freedom and civil rights, and the restrictions of immigrants, disability was brought to the table in arguments both for and against inequality.

1904 World’s Fair, St. Louis, MO
(photo source)

In each situation, “normalcy,” a western notion of progress, is highlighted in the case against equality; if someone is not “normal” they are not fully functional and cannot handle the rights given to normate [white male] Americans. By the mid-19th century this notion had grown in popularity, with anyone non-white or disabled considered to be evolutionary laggard, pulling humanity back toward its animal origins. The 1904 World’s Fair featured “defectives” and “primitives” side by side on display for [mostly white, “normal”] fairgoers to stare at, as did other events such as the freak shows of the 19th century.


Social science textbooks were no better; in his 1873 textbook Physical Geography, under the heading “The White Race the Normal, or Typical Race,” Arnold Guyot compared the “harmony in all the proportions of the figure” of the white race with those who had “gradually deviated” from normalcy.

Disability and Slavery

The concept of disability was cited frequently in the justification of slavery. One common argument: African Americans are less intelligent than white people and therefore cannot compete on an equal basis in society. This argument prevailed even after emancipation, with quotes such as this one from the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal:

It is this defective hematosis, or atmospherization of the blood, conjoined with a deficiency of cerebral matter in the cranium, and an excess of nervous matter distributed to the organs of sensation and assimilation, that is the true cause of that debasement of mind, which has rendered the people of Africa unable to take care of themselves.

Mixed race children were said to have a deterioration of “moral and intellectual endowments,” and “mulattos” were referenced by medical practitioners as having greater intelligence than “pure” blacks. African Americans were also “prone to become disabled under conditions of freedom and equality” because of supposed physical and mental weakness. One New York medical journal reported that deafness was three times as common and blindness twice as common in free African Americans in the North than slaves in the South. Thus, slavery was best for their health (21).

Scientific Racism: The Drapetomania Diagnosis
Drapetomania was invented by Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright
(photo source)

There were also debilitating “diseases” and “conditions” supposedly affecting mental health. Drapetomania, a so-called disease of the mind that caused slaves to run away, was diagnosed when masters “made themselves too familiar with them, treating them as equals.” Dysaesthesia Aechiopis was another supposed mental disease, causing slaves to become mischievous and avoid work. Freed slaves commonly carried these “conditions,” resulting in “a beautiful harvest of mental and physical degeneration” (21). Through the white perspective of the 19th and early 20th centuries, freedom was disabling for Black people.

Damage Imagery

Daryl Michael Scott’s book on damage imagery

Even after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, the concept of disability featured prominently in arguments for and against equality. Liberals and conservatives both used what Daryl Michael Scott calls “damage imagery” in their arguments regarding African American freedom and equality. Conservatives used a biological framework (citing “diseases” such as those described above) to defend their position on social and political exclusion, while liberals argued that social conditions were responsible for racial inferiority, using damage imagery to defend inclusion and rehabilitation. As Scott and Baynton demonstrate, damage imagery is dangerous, reinforcing “the belief system that made whites feel superior in the first place” (Baynton 2013: 22-23). Whether through contempt or through pity (two perspectives commonly applied to people with disabilities as well), intentionally or not, both sides reinforced notions of racial defectivity and white supremacy.

Women’s Suffrage and Immigration

Antifeminism - Wikipedia
Headquarters of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage
(photo source)

African Americans were framed as defective in order to defend inequality. Similar arguments were made regarding women’s suffrage and immigration. Opponents of gender equality cited women’s “frail” physicality and “feeble-mindedness” as reasons why political participation could be harmful; women wouldn’t be able to handle all that responsibility and could become disabled because of it. Proponents of equality likewise used disability in their arguments, stating that women were not disabled and therefore deserved to vote. Many believed that women were erroneously classed with disabled people, who at that time were considered unfit for voting (and unworthy of many other rights). Women were not naturally disabled but were made disabled by inequality; suffrage could cure their disabilities. In 1920, it finally did (at least for white women).

Immigrants Arriving at Ellis Island 1911 | Chris | Flickr
Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1911
(photo source)

Disability was likewise connected with immigration in the 19th/early 20th century. Any immigrant with a “normal” appearance was allowed quick entry into the United States, while anyone with an “abnormal” appearance was stamped with a letter on their back (for lameness, hernia, goiter, mental illness, etc.) and subject to in-depth examination before consideration for entry. An able-bodied immigrant would not have the same rights as a white American in the United States but would be granted access of entry, while anyone showing signs of physical or mental disability could be sent back to their country of origin.

“All Lives Matter?”

In the past month there have been some outlandish arguments for why “all lives matter” and why we don’t need to say “Black Lives Matter.” I find those arguments absurd, but learning about the narratives of disability in this country’s history does give a sense of how such ignorances develop. In the late 19th and early 20th century even well-meaning proponents of equality for Black people, women, and immigrants wound up “othering” people with disabilities while fighting for civil rights. I’d like to think that those activists may not have realized how their words and actions for one group marginalized another, but it’s more likely it didn’t occur to them that people with disabilities should be included in the fight for equal rights, given societal norms (it wasn’t until 1990 that the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed to prohibit discrimination based on disability. 1990!).

With that in mind, I can see how seeds of discrimination can be planted for any group, intentionally or not. Even something as simple as a well-meaning grandparent sharing memories of attending a World’s Fair can sow seeds of difference. Exhibits such as the “primitives” and “defectives” from 1904 were minimal or removed completely from future fairs, but showcases still enforced ideas of “normalcy” through exhibit choice and presentation. The 1939 “World of Tomorrow” World’s Fair in New York was divided into seven regional and thematic zones featuring mainly European and American innovations and cultural traditions, with a few displays thrown in from other parts of the world. The minimal inclusion of innovations from non-Western regions and the lack of African countries present in the “pavilion” section of the fair speak loudly through absence.

Finally, it’s important to note the ways in which both conservatives and liberals argued their cases for equality/inequality in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with disability as the common factor. We must learn from the past to ensure that our own activism for marginalized groups is not framed with a perspective of pity that “others” anyone but rather from a stance of empowerment; we must be inclusive rather than exclusionary.

Works Cited

Baynton, Douglas C. “Disability and the justification of inequality in American history.” The disability studies reader 17, no. 33 (2013): 57-59.

Meldon, Perri. “Disability History: The Disability Rights Movement.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/articles/disabilityhistoryrightsmovement.htm.

Wikipedia. “1939 New York World’s Fair.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1939_New_York_World%27s_Fair.

  1. mybookworld24 says:

    Cool way to learn history

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