blessed blessed leader

A few friends and I recently went to Memphis to see each other. None of us lived there but it was sort of a half-way point between states and looked promising. On the first day, we went to the National Civil Rights Museum. It was interesting…. actually more of an I-Love-Dr.-King museum where people could walk in (it’s not very accessible for chair-users), poke around a bit, and go “Thank goodness that’s over with. Glad we got our equality now!”

It really got me thinking about how much our society (here in the U.S.) promotes a sense of individuality and why this can be bad. We constantly want to put a person forward and say “this is our hero! Be like them!” but really power and change come from collectively organizing. Yes, one person can perhaps do something to instigate that organizing but even then it is not that person doing the work or creating the thoughts, it is millions of moments and people that support that person and make them who they are. A friend pointed out how the story of Rosa Parks is twisted to create heroes instead of show the force of collective organizing. Rosa wasn’t the first one to sit down in a white only section of a bus. Rosa wasn’t some random person. She was an activist who had been involved with the movement for a decade. We want to make Rosa a hero so much that we forget the other people involved and how communities really work. This can be said for a lot of other movements as well.

I think this is why the idea of saying disability culture exists is actually so militant — it flies in the face of individualism. Disability Culture does recognize difference but it also says disabled people share a bond, an experience, a combined potential. By focusing on disability culture or the community, we are striving to do what is best for each other collectively instead of saying that one person alone created change. When you have oppressed people who have been told they can do nothing and are worth nothing, the message of individual power can be extremely radical for that person. However, what happens next if they don’t hear the second message— that we need each other, as a part of our personal sustainability but also to be the very definition of a community? What happens if people think Rosa Parks or Dr. King is the cause for our voting rights, instead of hundreds of years of revolting and organizing and being a community? What happens if all our introductions to the community for young people focus on their individual potential (which they have and need to know) and do not emphasize the community or movement? How can a group of individuals who only want to be individuals even be a community? Will we move forward?

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8 responses to “blessed blessed leader

  1. Aaminah

    It is funny you would mention this. I just recently sent this link to BFP: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/04/books/04Book.html?ex=1200114000&en=ad20fb07fda2591c&ei=5070&emc=eta1 with my initial comment on the book “I don’t at all question the author’s claims. But I’m really confused as to why people don’t “get” that the Civil Rights Movement started on the plantations themselves! What is all this “so and so started the movement against Jim Crow… blah blah blah”? That was just an extension of the activism that was ongoing from the beginning.”

    As you say, we look for heroes and set up the ones who are recognizeable or have a good face or voice or connections or whatever, but rarely do we properly recognize the many many people who were not only doing the actual work “under” the hero, but who in fact inspired the hero to begin with. Everything is about collective action. This does not diminish the importance of individual action, but we have to realize that it isn’t ABOUT the individual but about the community.

  2. Your point about the value of a disability culture is well taken. I for one thoroughly enjoy being around other disabled people. I do not have this experience often but when I do I feel as though I can let my guard down and be myself. This is a good feeling. However, I wonder how many bipedal people know what disability culture means. I also wonder how many people look at disability through the lens of culture and not a medical model of disability. It is this utter lack of understanding on the part of most non disabled people that makes me think the disability rights movement needs a galvanizing figure like Rosa Parks. Even having stated this, we are not in total disagreement. For leaders need a people to lead and leaders need their people as well. It is a symbiotic relationship. Sadly, the people who have been portrayed by the media as leaders among the disabled are often profoundly flawed–here Christopher Reeve comes mind who reinforced negative stereotypes. I for one would love to see a disabled person emerge who can not only prompt other disabled people to assert their rights but connect with other civil rights groups thereby moving disability within the mainstream.

  3. Zach

    Another good question is what happens when a history based project such as the museum uses pictures and videos from communities such as our community and then denigrates (makes fun of the community) by neglecting to mention the hundreds of years of struggle to get stuff like the ADA (not that I’m a huge ADA ra ra ra fan.

  4. You are right, so many people strive for individualism yet they forget and neglect the power of tribal unity.

  5. I think that is why we have always had some of the hardest criticism come from other people with disabilities who see us a crazy people.

  6. That’s an interesting thought. I think that people assume that it’s easier to motivate people by pretending that their heroes can make stand alone differences. I think also that people hope that some loner can make a difference all by himself because they see that there isn’t a culture waiting for change.
    Also, I personally find that looking at individuals can be more inspiring than communities because the fact is that I am not finding myself fitting into any community. I am not blending into any sort of community because I belong to too many minorities and because I’m politically extremely conservative.

  7. i really love aaminah’s point here, especially about the good face or voice:

    As you say, we look for heroes and set up the ones who are recognizeable or have a good face or voice or connections or whatever, but rarely do we properly recognize the many many people who were not only doing the actual work “under” the hero, but who in fact inspired the hero to begin with. Everything is about collective action. This does not diminish the importance of individual action, but we have to realize that it isn’t ABOUT the individual but about the community.

    i hear you guys on the hero thing too, that makes sense. rosa parks, every other hero, does inspire people on some, often very real, level. it’s just a lot of times we spend so much time waiting for that next person to be our voice—or THE voice—that it stops us from building community. it also strips the most beautiful part about community—the people!

  8. DIVERSITY: the art of thinking independently together. Malcolm S. Forbes

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