Ottis Smith / @otitographics
What Does Juneteenth Mean For Black Disabled People?
A poem and short story by Leroy F. Moore Jr.
Juneteenth is celebrated on June 19th in the African American community as Freedom Day when US slavery was reported to be over. It began in the state of Texas and then became recognized throughout the states. On that day in 1865, Union Major-General Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3 to the people of Galveston, Texas. It stated:
"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."
A disabled slave didn't wait for a White man to decorate freedom. Some may know the life of Harriet Tubman, how she became disabled and how she used her disability to free other slaves. And even after the announcement of freedom and the 14th amendment of the constitution, many disabled slaves continued to live and work on the plantation as charity, helping the rehabilitation of Black disabled people.
So what does Juneteenth mean to Black disabled people? Yes, we need to celebrate this day, our Black disabled American ancestors and the work that they did, and at the same time recognize the continued struggles and beautiful history, artistic creativity, and activism of Black disabled people from slavery to today.
To read more about Harriet Tubman and Black disabled Americans in history, read Leroy F. Moore Jr.'s Black Disabled Ancestors.
The road to disability justice is dependent on the intersectionality of the movement. The inclusion of all disabled people from different races, gender identities, religions, etc. is essential to the advancement of disability justice. To learn more about the Black disabled community and be a better ally you can take the following steps.
I would like to share a poem from my 2020 book, Black Disabled Ancestors, as well as a short story.
13th Amendment, A Black Disabled Poetic Viewpoint
My Black disabled ancestors
Weren't free by a swift of a pen
Way back then
Black Codes, Ugly Laws & Lynchings
Dancing on slave ships
Shackles on our feat shaking our hips
Also lead many to freedom
Hey let's talk about Representative James Mitchell Ashley & Abraham Lincoln
What happened to your pen back then
What was your definition of "Involuntary Servitude?
I don't mean to be rude
Your pen back then
Separated us by law
Ok I can understand that was a flaw
In 2017 we are still living your mistake
And it is hard to take
Decades of freak shows, circus & museums
Involuntary entertainment for the public sake
Forced to work against his or her will
Only way to make a buck was to shut up
And get into a cage
As "owners" took our income was the hardest pill
13th Amendment wrote into the US Constitution
While Black disabled people were locked up in run-down state institutions
Today we think that shelter workshops of the Goodwill are the solution
If it wasn't abuse it was sub-minimum wage
And we must not show any rage
Cause we weren't free so could be again locked in a cage
Separated so not mentioned
No wonder Black scholars have no comprehension
When they write, teach & create art on the 13th to the New Jim Crow
We were never the invisible nation
My Black disabled ancestors gave my generation
The foundation to write books & make art and music inside & outside of Krip-Hop Nation
Peg Leg Joe & Harriet Tubman Explain Race & Disability Relations During the Underground Railroad Years Compared to Today
Church bells ringing as the Mississippi River flows up to man-made streets, everybody dressed in their Sunday best stopped like they saw a ghost! In a small town with one street leading to the center of town like back in the Wild Wild West with small rolls of tumbleweeds blowing around, two figures turned the corner onto Main Street. One figure collapsed to the ground suddenly and the other figure took off his wooden leg and proceeded to kneel on the other knee, stroking the Black woman's hair and taking away her rifle. The townspeople stopped and gathered around these two figures.
"Don't worry, Harriet always blacks out, she has epilepsy! She will wake up soon!" The White man with a peg leg next to him sang.
The crowd was stunned. People whispered, but loudly, "That can't be..."
Credit: Ottis Smith / @otitographics
Then the sky opened and hot rain poured out onto the people. Adults turned into kids playing and laughing. Harriet stood up and cocked her rifle in the air, demanding silence. That's all you can hear, the sheets of rain abusing the concrete. Peg Leg Joe had a smirk as he knew all along what was coming.
Harriet rose from the sidewalk, grabbed her rifle, and smiled at Peg Leg Joe. At that moment, the sun beamed down like a laser, sweat rolling down people's faces like a consistent waterfall. Heads turned to them as Peg Leg Joe got his leg on. Harriet grabbed Peg Leg Joe's hand while the other hand cocked the black rifle straight up in the air.
"Yes, it's us– Your ancestors, I, Harriet Tubman and Peg Leg Joe, but I call him just Mighty Peg! We have come back because we don't like what has been told about us and the divide between White and Black disabled people of today!"
Everybody looked at each other with a guilty and confused look on their face while tumbleweeds stopped blowing around like they grew roots that made them stable and strong all of a sudden. The crowd split down the middle, and the voice of another ancestor filled up the town center.
"If I had my way I'd tear this building down! If I had my way I'd tear this building down! If I had my way I'd tear this building down! If I had my way I'd tear this building down!"
The shadow of a man with a guitar and sunglasses appeared on the stairs of City Hall with a tin cup hanging off his guitar. Everybody glanced at him while Harriet started to sing along with him.
"Boom boom!" Harriet let off two in the air from her long, black, old-school rifle and with a stern face. The blind man with the guitar tilted his head back and busted out a laugh that filled the small town. Peg Leg Joe stepped up in front of Harriet and started to sing-speak.
"We come from a time long ago. Some of you with PhDs still don't know. When we sing, swing high, swing low. How we worked together. Come around my brothers and sisters!"
Harriet let off another two in the air. "This you won't find in your textbooks. You see, I followed Peg Leg Joe's song that started the Underground Railroad! Yes, we Black disabled folk worked with White disabled poor folk to do all sorts of things right in front of society back then in the face of White men and White institutional guards that were called so-called doctors who kept us drugged up!"
Harriet stood firmly with the rifle by her side after she finished talking. The crowd began to whisper among themselves like they were alone or were scared to speak loudly.
Peg Leg Joe grabbed his leg and started singing, “Lef' foot, peg foot goin' on, Foller the drinkin' gou'd. Lef' foot, peg foot goin' on, Foller the drinkin' gou'd. Lef' foot, peg foot goin' on, Foller the drinkin' gou'd.”
"I repeat that verse because I want you all to know my disability. Some call me folklore, like Jim Crow, but I was a real person who came on plantations to share my song, 'Following the Drinking Gou'd.'"
Harriet stood straight at attention like she was protecting Peg Leg Joe.
"People, especially the White man, thought I was just a crazy lady that would just fall asleep at the drop of a dime. You see, in the beginning, I was no threat." Harriet became soft and her demanding voice was more light and high pitched.
Her body became limp all of a sudden and she fell to the ground. Peg Leg Joe quickly took off his leg and put his leg under Harriet's head. Hopping around, Peg Leg Joe screamed, "This is what we do, teamwork, as we slip under the radar, side-by-side. Now today White disabled people think and act like they are almighty. Spewing their White privilege, what the hell!" Peg Leg Joe's eyes darted around, picking out White men in the tense crowd.
Harriet put down her rifle and softly spoke... "Throw away master's shackles when it comes to disability. Black women, respect your sisters with disabilities! I wasn't right all the time. I pushed my mother to freedom in her wheelchair, not only physically but educationally. As a tear rolled down her cheek, Harriet went into another seizure and in an instant, Peg Leg Joe started to sing,
“Go down Moses Way down in Egypt land. Tell all Pharaohs to let my people go!”
The sky opened and warm rain showered the shocked crowd. With arms in the air like an outside church feeling the holy ghost, the crowd turned into a choir and in unity sang, "Amen!"
Peg Leg pointed at the wet crowd and sternly said, "I have channeled the bodies and minds of today's Poor like Tiny of POOR Magazine and learned that White culture has become not good for anybody. What happened?! We must start over with the teaching of POOR Magazine. We must listen to poverty scholars like we used to do. We have to stop hogging the wealth. Like Jesus, POOR Magazine is knocking on the doors of the wealthy to share the medicine of community reparations. Our work, your ancestors are being carried out by people among you but you need to stop, listen, and learn!"
Harriet's eyes widened as she saw one of the slave-catchers gaining ground. She spoke like she was in a rush. Boom boom, she let off two more in the air while Blind Willie Johnson, who was standing up now with his cane, came moaning and hollering toward Harriet like they were having a conversation. The townspeople were in the dust of late evening while a horse and buggy circled the crowd looking for another street to turn down on. "Look at us, look at us, take a long look! People look away when they see people like Peg Joe and me but we lead millions under the noses of our naysayers. We trick them and played on their low expectations of us but I see the same attitudes today and it hurts. The Black and White disabled youth don't even look at each other. They are ashamed. This is the main reason we came back!" Harriet stood back after she spoke to take Peg Leg Joe's hand.
Peg Leg Joe started to cry because he knew what he and Harriet did in their day, but it seemed it was all erased in this small town in Mississippi. All at once, the crowd joined Peg Leg Joe, crying rivers of tears. And just like that, when the crying stopped, the sun came out and Peg Leg Joe and Harriet were gone. On the town's green was a little Black boy with his walker beatboxing while a little White girl on crutches break-danced as the townspeople gathered around, watching in pride, throwing dollar bills in the middle of the circle.
From the book, Black Disabled Ancestors
Published by Poor Press of Poor Magazine 2020