Black Disabled History is Black History

February holds a special place in my heart because it is Black History Month—an invaluable period for reflecting on the trials and triumphs of the Black community throughout American history. It serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring struggles against oppression, while also celebrating the remarkable achievements and contributions of Black leaders who have shaped our world.

Harriet Tubman

However, amidst the recognition of these influential figures, it's crucial to shed light on a facet often overlooked: the presence and impact of Black disabled leaders. Growing up, I rarely encountered representations of Black individuals with disabilities in narratives of historical significance, leading me to mistakenly believe that being disabled and a leader could not coexist. This oversight in our education system perpetuates the misconception that disability equates to incapacity, obscuring the powerful stories of Black leaders who have thrived despite their disabilities.

Disability remains absent from the narratives surrounding many prominent Black historical figures. Yet, the truth is that numerous Black leaders, past and present, have navigated the intersection of race and disability, leaving indelible marks on history. By acknowledging and amplifying their experiences, we affirm the resilience and strength inherent in both disability and Black identity.

Take, for example, the iconic Harriet Tubman—an abolitionist icon revered for her pivotal role in the Underground Railroad. What history often fails to mention that she had epilepsy, stemming from a traumatic brain injury inflicted by a white slave owner. Tubman's seizures and periods of unconsciousness did not deter her from her courageous mission to liberate countless enslaved individuals.

Another example, the story of Tom Wiggins, a blind pianist and prodigy, exemplifies the extraordinary talent and perseverance of Black disabled leaders. Wiggins honed his musical abilities from a young age, captivating audiences with his virtuoso performances. His legacy as the first Black person to perform at the White House stands as a testament to his remarkable achievements, inspiring generations of musicians and admirers worldwide.

Moreover, recognizing the disabilities of these trailblazers provides deeper insights into their journeys and accomplishments. Tubman's belief that her seizures were divine visions highlights the intersection of spirituality and disability in her quest for liberation. Meanwhile, Wiggins' mastery of music transcends mere skill, becoming a testament to the resilience and creativity of disabled artists throughout history.

Indeed, the stories of Black disabled leaders enrich our understanding of both disability rights and Black history. It's imperative to acknowledge the disabilities of Black leaders because doing so not only provides a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of their experiences and contributions but also challenges harmful stereotypes and stigmas surrounding disability. By recognizing the intersectionality of race and disability, we validate the diverse narratives within the Black community, highlighting the resilience and strength of individuals who have overcome significant barriers to achieve greatness. Moreover, acknowledging the disabilities of Black leaders promotes inclusivity and representation, ensuring that all facets of their identities are celebrated and honored. This acknowledgment not only enriches our collective historical narrative but also fosters empathy, understanding, and solidarity, ultimately paving the way for a more equitable and inclusive society.

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About the Author - Nila Morton

My name is Nila Morton. I’m a 23-year-old woman in a wheelchair. I have a bachelor's degree in Psychology and hope to become a Clinical Psychologist one day. I love being around my family and friends. I have a dog named Chloe, who is the light of my life. My favorite things to do are shopping, traveling, trying new restaurants, writing, and reading. I hope that every day I inspire other disabled people to not be ashamed of their disability and to live their life to the fullest. Instagram/TikTok: @nilanmorton

Nila Morton

The opinions expressed in these blogs are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.