This week’s session marked our last visit from a fabulous guest author, memoirist and professor Rachel Adams. In addition to Rachel’s generous Q&A, we wrote in response to two readings on disability.
The first was an excerpt from the famous black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde‘s autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982). Her parents emigrated to the U.S. from the Caribbean islands of Barbados and Carriacou, a territory of Grenada. Ten years after publishing Zami, in 1992, she died of cancer.
In the third chapter, Lorde recounts the experience of being nearly blind as a clumsy young child, prone to shattering the glasses that were stuck to her head with an elastic band. As she considers the barriers that her near-sightedness posed to learning how to read and write, she also suggests the prejudices she faced from strict teachers. The white nuns who ran her Catholic elementary school in Harlem were more likely to misperceive her unwitting misbehavior as a sign of an attention deficit disorder rather than advanced thinking.
In addition to this memoir, Lorde was best known for her incredible poetry, which you can explore here.
On Rachel’s recommendation, we also read Robert Hayden‘s “The Tattooed Man.” Also an African American poet living with extreme near-sightedness, Hayden’s poem uses the metaphor of the tattooed man to discuss race, disability, and desire in tandem. Born to a very low-income family in Detroit, MI, Hayden spent most of his childhood in foster care and became an important voice in the Black Arts Movement (1965-1975).
A professor of American literature and disability studies at Columbia University, Rachel published Raising Henry, a memoir about raising her son, who has Down syndrome, in 2013. As a feminist scholar, Rachel’s public writing highlights intersections between disability and other historical legacies of inequality; for example, one of her opinion pieces we read, “Missing the Bus” in the Huffington Post, analogizes unjustified changes to her son’s bussing to the struggles for equal access to transportation and education that animated the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In the other example that we read, “Belated But Essential Steps to Respect,” applauds the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry‘s long-awaited call to doctors to erase “the R-word” from their medical vocabulary.
Rachel talked frankly about her hopes, frustrations, and epiphanies as an academic who has transformed her writing and interests for a wider audience in the public sphere. Her first book, Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination, studied still-existing freak shows in outposts like Coney Island. During her visit, she taught us a lot about disability. Topics covered included:
- the extent to which disabilities exist on a spectrum;
- the exacerbated conditions for disabled people dealing with multiple and overlapping oppressions (like women in prison)
- horrifying stories of violent and uninformed reactions to disability in the U.S. (such as the shooting of a mentally ill man in a hospital, captured in This American Life);
- research that proves how difficult it is to “change someone’s mind;”
- doctors’ callous treatment of patients as medical specimens, emblematized in her recent observations of genetic counseling sessions;
- the invisibility of learning disabilities, and the use of universal design to counteract discrepancies in learning styles in the classroom.
In particular, Rachel emphasized the perils as well as the possibilities of putting one’s voice out in public on behalf of a cause. She described receiving some surprising hate mail in response to her memoir, ranging from bigots to offended moms who felt her experience didn’t reflect theirs. Especially instructive was one criticism that she took to heart: that her “unexamined privilege” as a white Jewish woman living on the Upper West Side led her to represent her family’s experience without enough awareness for what it would have meant to have less.
We were so incredibly grateful to Rachel for sharing her experiences of publishing life writing with such generous candor– her openness to “being real with us,” as one student, Jamaican Prince, complimented her in the Q&A. With regards to writing memoir, perhaps her most striking pieces of advice were these:
- Know your audience (for her, she wanted to reach doctors, parents, and educators);
- Devote your first draft to what you really think, and your second to how not to hurt the people you’re thinking about, keeping in mind that “nobody likes to be written about, ever;”
- Define yourself as a character, maybe even a flawed character, in your own story; drop the illusion that you’re “writing your real self.”
You can read more of Rachel’s personal essays on her website at www.RachelAdams.net.
Lastly, if you missed class, here were our writing prompts!
- Write an op-ed in which you take a stance on behalf of a political issue that affects you or someone close to you. Become your own advocate, and in a persuasive tone, explain why your opinion is the right one on this issue.
- Audre Lorde’s memoir, Zami, takes us back in time to early childhood memories about her near-blindness. In your own personal essay or memoir, think about an early moment in your childhood when you were accused of being sick, abnormal, or disabled and struggled to become ‘normal’ again.
- Robert Hayden addresses his poem to someone who judges him for his body and causes him pain— both physical and psychological. Write a poem addressed to a “you” who has caused you similar pain and judgment based on the way you look or a physical/mental condition you can’t help.
Next week: It’s our last class! We’ll celebrate with one final round of pizza and a bunch of African, Latin American, South Asian, and Caribbean poems and short stories thinking about our home, the concrete jungle where dreams are made of. There’s nothing you can’t do, you know?