Archive for the ‘Music and Disability Studies’ Category

We may gaze at what we desire, but we stare at what astonishes us.

Garland-Thomson 2009: 13

The body may be different, strange, even unusual, but it is the mechanism of representation that renders this body a “freak.”

Hevey 1992

Today is July 14th. My exam is August 13th. I have less than one month left to prepare. If I had a month for other things in life that would seem long, but holy moly I am not ready!

Remembering Amiri Baraka | Special Collections Blog

A few posts ago I wrote about Amiri Baraka’s 1963 book Blues People and got caught up in his description of Benny Goodman (a white bandleader) hiring Black musicians like Lionel Hampton as a “spectacle” to draw a crowd. I’m still not convinced by Baraka’s perspective; I align more with Stanley Crouch’s interpretation of the situation.

Regardless, the idea of people being showcased because of physical difference (in this case, skin color) is common in disability studies. I’ve only read 1/4 of the sources on my Music and Disability Studies exam list so far and out of those twenty sources, nine directly mention “enfreakment,” “freakery,” “spectacle,” staring, and/or freak shows. In disability studies the differences explored extend far beyond skin color, but I see an overlap between what authors on this list and my Black Atlantic list are concerned with.

Freaks, Freak Shows

Freak show - Wikipedia
A freak show in Rutland, VT, 1941
(photo source)

“Freak” is a social construction, not a person but “the enactment of a tradition, the performance of a stylized presentation” (Bogdan 1988). Normalcy is likewise a social construction, one which is fluid and non-absolute (Davis 1995: 23). The rise and fall of freak shows (aka sideshows) parallels the 19th/early 20th century timeline for when disability was used as an argument for/against equality, as described in my last entry (re:disability’s role in the women’s suffrage movement, African American freedom and civil rights, and immigration in the the 19th/early 20th centuries). People with disabilities were perceived as inferior, unable to handle the rights and freedoms afforded to “normate” individuals. Thus, disability could be used to garner pity or contempt depending whether someone was arguing for or against equality for women, African Americans, immigrants, etc. One side argued that those groups were worthy of more rights than disabled people, the other argued that, like disabled people, women/immigrants/African Americans could not handle the same responsibilities as “normate” white men.

Along the same timeline, in the 1840s P.T. Barnum took over the American Museum in New York City and began displaying “human curiosities,” strongly contributing to the growing popularity of “freak shows” in the US. Freak shows remained popular until 1940, when they began to be viewed as distasteful (though they continued to exist with some regularity until the 1950s/60s). At that time, the concept of eugenics was gaining traction and people with disabilities were beginning to be seen as “sick.”

Before that period, people with disabilities were seen as somewhat inhuman, exotic, odd, or even superhuman, able to do things that “normal” people couldn’t because of their differences and simultaneously unable to do what normates could do, hence not being considered worthy of equal rights. They were not presented as handicapped, but different in a divisive way. As the concept of sickness gained traction, disability began to garner pity; people with disabilities were still not equal, but now it was distasteful to highlight their differences. As Robert Bogdan notes, “presentations are artifacts of changing social institutions, organizational formations, and world views” (Bogdan 1988: 35).

“General Tom Thumb” was one of the “attractions” at Barnum’s museum. He is an example of intentional misrepresentation; 11-y/o English-born Tom Thumb was actually 5-y/o, Connecticut-born Charles Sherwood Stratton when Barnum began exhibiting him. Later in life when he married, he and his wife were presented with a baby that was not theirs in the hopes that a third “Thumb” would attract a larger audience (Bogdan 1988: 25).


In this blog series we’ve reviewed many events happening in the same period (19th/early 20th century): Freak shows were popular, disability was not yet seen as a sickness but rather as a dividing difference, and white bandleaders such as Benny Goodman were hiring Black musicians for their groups. Other events I won’t cover in depth can also can be added to the timeline. In 1893 for instance, Fanwood, New York School for the Deaf (previously known as New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb until 1856 and now called the New York School for the Deaf) established a military curriculum, adding what is likely the world’s first deaf marching band to the school in the early 1900s.

The Fanwood Band
(photo taken by Carolyn Stallard at the New York School for the Deaf, 2017)

The marching band, consisting entirely of deaf students, drew large crowds not only for competitions but also for practices and drills. One report states: “Every Sunday afternoon in good weather dress parade is held on the lawn in front of the Institution, and the fence is always lined with interested spectators who have heard of the fame of these ‘silent cadets’” (Dobyns 1908:19). Was it the cadets’ musical prowess that drew crowds, or the spectacle of deaf people playing instruments? It is interesting to note that the military school and its marching ensemble existed from 1893-1952, disbanding just as attitudes toward freak shows and disabilities were changing in the United States.

So what does this mean? Does it make sense to link Baraka’s idea of spectacle in regards to race with the concept of spectacle in regards to disability? Both refer to marginalized groups perceived by/through an identity-defining characteristic that does not match societal norms. I’m linking these ideas to help myself prepare for this exam but I do feel as if there is overlap in a broader context.

Many Terms

A number of terms related to the concept of individuals defined by difference have been coined within disability studies. Here are some that relate to performing arts that can possibly be reinterpreted with race in mind instead of disability. These terms could also be applied to gender. For instance, female bands in the late 19th/early 20th centuries were often viewed as entertainment rather than as groups of competent musicians. I have not included all terms related to this concept, just the ones I’ve been reading about in my studies so far:

  • Freak: A social construction, not a person but “the enactment of a tradition, the performance of a stylized presentation” (Bogdan 1988).
    • Social attitudes toward anatomical difference inform the creation of the “freak.”
  • Enfreakment: The societal creation of the freak; the marginalization and “othering” of a non-normative body.
    • “Enfreakment emerges from cultural rituals that stylize, silence, differentiate, and distance the persons whose bodies [are deemed different through repeated public spectacle]” (Garland-Thomson 1996: 10).
    • Enfreakment is a “process of stylizing and, most importantly, marketing the non-normative body” (Hevey).
  • Engulfment: Process where a person is reduced to their disability; “stripped of normalizing contexts and engulfed by a single stigmatizing trait” (Garland-Thomson 1997: 11).
  • Staring: The dominant mode of looking at disability in American culture; “the normative stare constructs the disabled” (Garland-Thomson 2005).
    • Four elemental qualities of staring: It is a physiological response; it is monitored by social rules, with culture determining its meaning and practice; it is a natural human response that establishes a social relationship between starer and staree; it is a conduit to knowledge, an urgent response to make the unknown known.
  • Disability as masquerade: Embracing disability rather than hiding it to “pass.” This embrace marks someone as a target but also exposes and resists prejudices of society (Siebers 2008).

Enfreaking Popular Culture

Freak shows still exist today but are nowhere near as common as they were in the 19th/early 20th centuries. Today they are not seen so much as distasteful as “fringe,” outside the realm of popular culture. However, some artists work to bring the freak show concept into normate spaces. Perhaps most notable is Lady Gaga, who reappropriates the freak show and uses terms such as “freak” and “monster” to refer to her fan base. She says she wants her fans to have a “freak in me to hang out with” so “they don’t feel alone” (Ellis 2015). She focuses on transgression, identity politics, and otherness, which Ellis says position her as a key figure in popular social change discourse.

Hot Shots: Lady GaGa Performs At Elton John's White Tie ...
Lady Gaga’s performances in wheelchairs are a point of debate in disability forums, according to scholar Katie Ellis (2015).
(photo source)

Her focus on otherness makes me think of Kevin Gaines’ description of artistic othering, a response to social othering. In his examples, Black artists create spaces for music outside of the realm of “normal” popular culture, producing sounds free of influence from white, dominant culture. Could a form of artistic othering be applied to disability and music? I don’t think we can say that Lady Gaga herself practices artistic othering, since she is not disabled, but when someone with a disability creates music in a unique way through their disability that enhances and celebrates their difference, is that artistic othering? Similarly, Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way” has become an anthem for the disability rights agenda. Does that make it an example of artistic othering?


There is a lot more to process about all these ideas. What do you think? Through the frame of 19th/early 20th century perspectives and societal norms, can terms like artistic othering, enfreakment, staring, etc. be used for multiple marginalized groups, or are they unique to the group they were originally intended for? Am I performing a form of appropriation by suggesting that they might be applicable in different contexts? Something to think about…

Works Cited

Bogdan, Robert. 1988. “The Social Construction of Freaks.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemary Garland Thomson. New York University Press. 23-37.

Davis, L. 1995. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. London and New York: Verso.

Dobyns, A. Webster. 1908. American Annals of the Deaf, Volumes 52-53.

Ellis, Katie. 2015. “Enfreaking Popular Music: Making Us Think by Making Us Feel.” In Disability and Popular Culture: Focusing Passion, Creating Community, and Expressing Defiance, 101–118. Surrey, UK: Ashgate.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. 2005. “Dares to Stare: Disabled Women Performance Artists and the Dynamics of Staring.” In Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance, edited by Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander, 30–41. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

—–. 1997. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

—–, ed. 1996. Freakery: Cultural spectacles of the extraordinary body. NYU Press.

Hevey, David. 1992. The creatures time forgot: Photography and disability imagery. Taylor & Francis.

Lipenga, KJ. 2019. “The New Normal: Enfreakment in Saga.”
The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship, 9(1): 2, pp. 1–17.

Siebers, Tobin. 2008. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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.

Wikipedia. “1939 New York World’s Fair.” Wikipedia.