I recently read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. If you’re up for another work on racism and colonialism from the perspective of white people, it’s well worth your while. Here’s the blurb on the back of the edition I read:
Told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959, The Poisonwood Bible is the story of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa. They carry with them all they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it – from garden seeds to Scripture – is calamitously transformed on African soil.
It really is a remarkable novel, but I’m not going to talk about it as a whole just now. One of the daughters, Adah, is disabled. When the young American daughters are new to the village of Kilanga, Adah’s twin, Leah, narrates:
Used to be, Adah was the only one of us un our family with something wrong with her. But here nobody stares at Adah except just a little because she’s white. Nobody cares that she’s bad on one whole side because they’ve all got their own handicap children or a mama with no feet, or their eye put out.
Father said, ‘They are living in darkness. Broken in body and soul, and don’t even see how they could be healed.’
Mama said, ‘Well, maybe they take a different view of their bodies.’
Nathan Price thinks the people of Kilanga – of the Congo – are inferior because they don’t want Christianity, because they’re black, and because they have a profoundly different attitude to his own towards physical disabilities. He thinks external inferiority, as he sees it, reflects internal inferiority inherent to Africans. If they were Christians, they’d be ashamed of their bodies, because Price thinks that black and disabled bodies are not in the divine image.
I like the vision of Kilanga as somewhere in which both blackness and disability are normative, because they mutually strengthen each other in the interrogation of the idea that the most privileged set ought to be in charge of what kinds of presentation and identity are moral, and whether they’re a reflection of inherent inferiority or something (that ought to be) entirely neutral. As regards Adah in particular, that which has been used to make her inferior in her hometown is neutral here, and she gets to understand her whiteness in ways she didn’t experience being kept largely at home and away from black people in Georgia.
To our next excerpt, then, from towards the end of the book and 1985. Adah has undergone an experimental program put together by a neurologist friend, and has for the first time the use of her side. She has lost a lot, including her extraordinary ways with books and palindromes, and when alone she sometimes limps, ‘trying to recover my old ways of seeing and thinking’. She regrets having lost the self who did damage in the Congo, because her new self cannot retain the precise cadence of understanding how she ought to be held accountable.
Don’t we have a cheerful, simple morality here in Western Civilization: expect perfection, and revile the missed mark! Adah the Poor Thing, hemiplegious egregious besiege us. Recently it has been decided, grudgingly, that dark skin or lameness may not be entirely one’s fault, but one still ought to show the good manners to act ashamed. […] The arrogance of the able-bodied is straggering. […] How can I explain that my two unmatched halves used to add up to more than one whole?
My experience of ableism has often been one in which able-bodied people think, ‘Well, of course no one would want to be disabled, the poor dears can’t help it, so let’s acknowledge them as valuable members of society from time to time, although I don’t really think they truly are as valuable, but it’s not nice to say so, even though I’d like the lot of them to stop messing up my pure vision of the world and fuck off and die.’ What of taking pleasure in being who you are? What of not really caring either way? What of disabled people’s lives not actually being about able-bodied people?
The heart of it is the idea that ‘one still ought to show the good manners to act ashamed’. I think that’s why white people and able-boded people can be so affronted when people of colour or disabled people don’t stay quiet and away, or refuse to exist as ornaments on which to project patronising feeling. It’s a horror that these freaks of nature are actually laying claim to being a part of humanity, that expression is coming from us, that we live lives beyond being like that. We’re only acceptable when ashamed and performing dominant ideas of what people like us are like: inferior.