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Black Disabled Men: “Man-Not”
Interview with Dr. Tommy Curry
by Leroy F. Moore Jr.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: I’m here with Dr. Tommy Curry, and I’m so glad to be talking to you about your work on Black males and your book “Man-Not.” I want to have a conversation more about your work in academia, your upcoming writing series on Black men with disabilities, and how your book, “Man-Not” deals with Black disabled men. So welcome, Tommy Curry.
Tommy J. Curry: Thank you so much for having me.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Please explain your work, and explain how it connects to Black disabled males.
Tommy J. Curry: Well, my work largely focuses on Black men and boys. What I’ve tried to do is create a new way of studying, a new way of thinking about Black men that does not center on them as pathological or as deviant or as violent. These are the stereotypes that we largely get about Black men and boys coming out of the 18th Century after Emancipation. Rather, focusing on their vulnerability. And I know for many people, that’s a very strange word; it’s a very strange term to associate with Black men, the idea that they’re vulnerable. What I’m interested in is how Black men experience pain, how they experience trauma, how they experience loss, and how these different aspects of human reality and suffering affect who they become as they grow up or as they develop. So then “Man-Not” is really an attempt to create a new space, a new way of thinking about Black men that puts their vulnerability to sexual violence, to death, and to trauma at the forefront of how we theorize them.
And I think this is especially important because I do a lot of work with disabled Black men and with pain management. Two or three of my articles have focused specifically on the disabled Black male body and looked at, from my own personal experience and stories, how do we understand pain and pain management as Black men? I think one of the biggest parts of racism, especially with what Black Male Studies scholars call “anti-black misandry,” is the idea that Black men aren’t human, that they don’t suffer. So when you talk about things like pain—and I was born with patella alta, so I’ve had a lot of orthopedic injuries, a lot of pain management and different procedures done over the course of my life—there’s this assumption that we don’t feel.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes.
Tommy J. Curry: That we don’t experience the world as full human beings. And that if somehow we’re not these superhuman masculine body, that somehow we’re not Black men all together. And I think that that means that we have to have a new kind of conversation, not just about how Black men perceive themselves but also as I wrote about in the article “This Nigger’s Broken,” how the world constructs us as monstrosities despite physical ailment.
So I’m trying to make a new, I guess I’m trying to let the world see that there’s a complexity of Black masculinity that does not just revolve around sexual orientation but also involves the body and the way the body interacts and experiences the world.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Talk about Black Male Studies. Is it diverse? Does it have images of Black men that are gay, trans men, and we talked about disabled Black men? So just tell us about Black Male Studies and what it looks like now and what’s your vision for the future.
Tommy J. Curry: Wow. That’s a great question. I mean, when you create a field, I think that you’re always limited by the time that you’re in, you know? So I experience the world as a Black man who has seen violence, who has experienced pain, who has seen other Black men die and be erased. And I’m trying to include all Black male voices because I think all Black men have something to say about Black manhood. So what I see, I mean I guess I can tell you my hope. I guess my hope is for the field to have so many voices of Black men that we’re forced to think of ourselves in a collective theory. We have so much complexity in the world that we say that there has to be a way for us to unite and unify these different experiences under a rubric of something, and that that requires a discipline. I’m hoping that’s what Black Male Studies does.
Because I think that when we look at the theorizations that we get of Black men in gender theory, there’s this focus on the body, right? The only way that we talk about the Black male body is as threat. And we know that that works in terms of how white people perceive it, but how do other Black men perceive other Black male bodies? And I’m serious here.
Part of my thing was that I was born with an ailment that, for the most part, allowed me to appear non disabled. But it put me through excruciating pain. I suffered for years, for decades. And it wasn’t until the innovations of stem cell technologies that I was able to actually be pain free, and that’s only been within the last 5 -8 years. So throughout my life, there was this constant pressure that hey, you look like a football player, you lift as much as a football player, you should play football. And then I remember me and my parents were constantly telling the principal, “He can’t, he can’t, he can’t. He can’t do these things.” And it was so bad that I couldn’t walk, you know? So there was no conversation about how I perceived myself in relationship to how other Black men perceived me. And that’s why I became so interested in how we look at Black male bodies from high school to college.
Because the hyper-sexualization, the super-humanism that we put on Black men as super predators, hypermasculine, super athletes, etc. regulates the way that Black people see other Black bodies. So if we assume that to be a Black male is to be non disabled what does that mean when we see disabled bodies in our community? How do we perceive disabled bodies? How do we perceive Black male bodies if we associate those with super-humanism? And that’s what I mean when I say that I want to get the conversation beyond how white people see us. Because we already know that even disabled Black male bodies are still seen as hyper-violent. We know that they see us as monstrosity. And I think that it’s especially important because when you’re looking at Black men that have mental or physical disabilities or illnesses they’re still shot as if they’re able-bodied threats. The police don’t pause and say, “Oh, disabled, not able-bodied, hence not capable of threat,” they read it the same way. They think, what are Black people, and what are Black communities saying about disability that’s going to change the way that we think about Black little boys?
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes, so true. Black disabled male bodies have been killed throughout history, from slavery to lynching to Jim Crow to police brutality. The real person, Jim Crow, was a real elder disabled man. The voices and the images of Black disabled men have been erased.
Tommy J. Curry: Absolutely.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Disability is never far up. The story about Emmett Till. People don’t know that he had disabilities. So what do you think about that?
Tommy J. Curry: I think you’re right. I think this is one of the— I was watching one of your talks, and you brought this point up, and I was shaking my head. I was like, I completely agree because in order to maintain the idea of respectability, you’re absolutely right that disability from Black men has been erased. The assumption is that any form of defect makes one imperfect. And this is what I’m saying, the erasure of the vulnerability that disabled Black men suffer is next to the pathologization of Black men. The racist pathologization of Black men assumes able-bodiedness, being physically overpowering to be a group. But what goes next to that is the idea of defect, that someone who has a mental or physical disability somehow shows they’re not human. They’re still pathological. So that’s, that’s what I’m working with, right? This is what I was working with in To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s the same Black man, it’s still the same pathological stereotypes in the minds of whites. As an able-bodied Black man, he was what a disabled Black man couldn’t physically perform the kinds of force and brutality necessary to rape a white woman. This doesn’t matter.
And we see Emmett Till, what comes to mind? The disability of Till doesn’t even situate in terms of what he represents. We don’t even think of Till as disabled.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: No, no we don’t.
Tommy J. Curry: So that’s what I mean. That’s what we’ve done to exclude certain kinds of Black male bodies and certain kinds of Black male vulnerability to society as a whole. And what I’m trying to do with my work—and again, this is an aspect of our work that never gets mentioned, by the way—the controversy is like, well, you know, Tommy Curry studies Black men and boys, or Tommy Curry criticizes feminism. But nobody’s ever said, “Look. Tommy Curry is studying disabled Black men.”
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes. I’ve watched your interviews many times on YouTube, and nobody talks about it. Nobody introduces you like that. Yeah.
Tommy J. Curry: No, they don’t. The fact that I write about disabled Black men and the fact that I write about child victims of sex abuse, that’s not the most controversial thing. I could tell you about my work because it actually focuses on people who are victims or people who are subject to the same kind of vulnerability that’s abusive that largely don’t interest most of the population. And I’ve been very specific. I’ve been very clear that some of the things that I post on my Facebook page will talk about disabled Black men, they’re victims of homicide. Disabled Black people, Black males, they’re victims of domestic abuse. Disabled Black men who are victims of rape. These are things that I’m constantly talking about, that I’m constantly, you know, this is where, these are the next two or three articles that I’m writing. And no one picks it up. It infuriates me sometimes because I’m trying to study Black lives holistically, and that means that we have to study, and we have to identify straight and identify gay, and we have to study Black men who are disabled. We have to study mental illness, right? We have to study mental and physical disability because that’s all the different kinds of bodies and characters that make up Black males. And if we don’t do a good job— We’re quick to point out the racism of white society that targets disabled Black male bodies, and we’re horrible, we’re horrible about pointing out our own blindness and our lack of understanding of disability in our own community affects the way that we interpret Black bodies.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes. Amen. I remember in the 70s I saw the TV production of Porgy and Bess, and that was the first time I saw a Black disabled man on TV. And I thought, oh my God. This is me. But even in Porgy and Bess, there was no talk about disability in the Black community.
Tommy J. Curry: Yes, and I think here’s what’s funny about it. I think that when we see the lack of representation, when we see the lack of disability being centered as a piece of how we think about racism and erasure in society, it socializes Black people to believe that able-bodiedness is the criteria for humanity. Because we talk about the police shooting, like when we look at police shootings, we’re constantly talking about Black men, Black men. And I’m like, that’s right. Black men are disproportionate, but the conversation’s largely about, is the Black man straight or gay? It’s never about, is the Black man non-disabled or disabled? Is he mentally capable or mentally ill or mentally disabled? None of those conversations happen. And that’s why I’m so interested in issues of suicide, and I’m constantly saying that, look. This trauma, this pain, this regret that Black men experience as a group fundamentally affects the character of Black people with disabilities.
And I tell people this story because—and I’m very serious here—two or three decades ago, given the physical ailment that I had, one of the only alternatives suggested was to have a full knee replacement. Well, I’m glad my parents didn’t go that route, but let’s say they did. I wouldn’t be able to walk. I’d probably be a wheelchair user. And it’s me. It’s the same body; I have the same ailment. It’s just a question of one surgery or the other. So what can I say as a scholar with that kind of history if I participate in the exclusion of pain and disability in how I thought about Black men? It’s about the power that I accept if I do not have this conversation of able-bodiedness behind my work of one operation away from being able to walk or not walk.
And I think that Black people are told in such a way, because we’re so focused on violence, we’re so focused on discrimination, sexism, etc., that what we don’t take time to see is that our theories have overdetermined the people we think are actually suffering. Because we’re not having a rich conversation about able-bodiedness or what people experience from certain stigmas from disability. What does it mean when we talk about that? What does it mean when we talk about, like the young Black boy that hugged a white woman. He hugged her, and he gave her a high five, and she filed a Title IX case against him.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes.
Tommy J. Curry: I forgot his name, but he has hydrocephalus and a few other ailments.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: He also has autism.
Tommy J. Curry: Yes, autism and hydrocephalus, right? And I thought about that, right? I thought about that seriously because what kind of a fit— And I’m not suggesting here that we think of disabled Black men as incapable. I really want to think about when we talk about his vulnerability, what does it mean for him to participate in cultural processes where an able-bodied white woman gets to construct him as a threat when he has neither the motivation or intent to be that? When did a high five become a sexual threat, an act of sexual aggression? And notice what happens here: it’s not just him as a Black male. It’s him in relationship to an able-bodied white woman that perceives him as a threat. So she gets to define what he is or is not capable of and assumes that some functions of incapacity absolutely means that he is savage. Because now he gets to be called as well, he doesn’t have the reason, the rationality to stop these primal urges that are often associated with Black men.
And this is a part of all conversations that we don’t want to have because we’ve bought in to sort of cultural scripts that allow us to maintain a certain proximity to respectability where all Black people are rational, all Black people are reasonable, all Black people are— It makes no sense, right, to be subjected to these kinds of violence because they’re human too. The disability places people physically and mentally outside of what they think the rational human being could be. And then if you believe in the fundamental nature of a Black boy and savagery and the fundamental end of a Black man is a brute, then what happens when people believe that the physical or mental impairments of a Black male is taken away? He becomes that brute. He becomes that savage. And that’s what we’re dealing with in a lot of these perceptions of disabled Black men and boys that we don’t want to have serious talks about.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: So true. I’m so glad that you’re doing the work.
Tommy J. Curry: I’m trying. Again, I think that it’s work that’s long overdue. I think that what I’ve really, really tried to do is to bring disability within the fold of how we study Black men. Because we have a lot of different disabilities, and I think that we have to change how we think about them.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yeah, totally.
Tommy J. Curry: We have to move from the kind of deficit model of these are defects, right? These are character traits. These are uniquenesses. These are things that our society and our community have to adjust to, but they should not be read as there’s something wrong with a person.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Oh yes. I totally do. No, it should be like a part of the culture, a part of this historical experience. I think Black people are still holding on—it might be radical to say that—but I think Black people are still holding on to the slave masters’ thinking around disability. It’s hush hush. You overcome it, and you keep it behind closed doors. And I think we’re still living with that kind of thinking.
Tommy J. Curry: Yes, it’s that type of thinking. And the other part about it too is that it’s like we have to be a certain way to suffer, you know? In order for us to truly get the life and the kinds of things that have been taken away from Black people, we associate that with a certain image and a certain body. And I think it’s so sad. I think it’s sad because when you think of white people, like you said, with Emmett Till. I believe he had a speech impediment. If you look at brothers and sisters who, you look at the Deaf community, Black Deaf community and look at the Black disabled community and look at Black people that suffer from chronic pain. I can honestly say I’ve never seen or heard a paper in almost a decade dealing with these issues.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Exactly. And what’s more interesting is if you look at Black history and Black culture, disability’s all through it with the Blues, with the late Al Hibbler that marched with Martin Luther King. I mean it’s right there. But once again, it’s not mentioned.
Tommy J. Curry: Right. I think that’s because we study Black disability, especially Black male disability as an identity that meets some more oppression. We don’t look at it as Black male bodies or Black people, Black individuals that contribute anything to the struggle of Black people.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: That’s right.
Tommy J. Curry: The idea of incapacity, that because people were born with disabilities, they were not able to contribute in the history of Civil Rights or the fights for our rights. And that’s just untrue.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: The whole Blues started with Black blind men. So I say in my presentation it’s like the whole entertainment industry before TV started with Black disabled bodies from freak shows to the medicine show to Jim Crow to the Blues. It was all disabled bodies, Black men.
Tommy J. Curry: And the thing is that I think we have to remind Black people and ourselves and our community is looked at by the resilience of these bodies.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes.
Tommy J. Curry: Because it’s still a struggle. Look at the Black boys who could not speak directly, who had physical problems, who were deaf, who were disabled, who experienced all sorts of obstacles, and discrimination. And look what they still became, right? I mean the struggle of disabled Black men and boys is not unlike the struggle of Black men in general.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: No, exactly.
Tommy J. Curry: And even from that, we don’t— You know, we value the story of Malcom X, right?
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yeah.
Tommy J Curry: We value the transformation from red to Malcom X, the prison, the poverty, the illiteracy. We’ve got to do that. But you take a disabled Black boy that has dyslexia, we don’t value that story.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: No, we don’t.
Tommy J. Curry: And that’s what I’m saying. I take it so personally because the assumption, for me, the assumption was that you might make because I couldn’t do football. You’re not a man because you can’t do this thing that these other Black boys can do. And look at how I transformed that into academic excellence. I take playing tennis and coaching tennis so seriously because it was a sport that they told me I could never do because I had a lot of displacement from my knees. It’s like the worst sport ever for your knees and with my kind of disability.
You know, it’s amazing because I think that if we were honest about the autobiographical moment of a lot of these Black individuals who write on race, that you would see that lots of them have experience with physical impairment or are associated with other people who are affected, but it never appears in their writing.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Never.
Tommy J. Curry: Because then the people or disabled individuals are part of our community. They’re some of us, actually, right? And nobody speaks about it.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yeah, nobody. Yeah, it’s so true. It’s so true.
Tommy J. Curry: My hope is that Black Male Studies enriches this area and makes it also about how disabled Black men and boys experience themselves in the world, but also takes seriously the kind of vulnerabilities that we don’t talk about. Like in my field, Anna Stubblefield, who was the white woman professor who raped a disabled Black man, that hasn’t generated any conversation.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: No, no, it hasn’t.
Tommy J. Curry: And I take great offense to that, not only because of the work I do to stand for Black male victims of rape, but it’s the special vulnerability that a disabled Black man has with a able-bodied white woman and the kind of predatory nature we know that white women have towards Black male bodies. And no one wants to have this conversation, and I think it’s embarrassing for a couple reasons. The first is ‘cause it doesn’t want to deal with the power white women have culturally and politically. The second, you know, we have to answer to other members of our community. Why are we not studying disabled Black male vulnerability? Why are we not studying the vulnerabilities of disabled Black people more generally? And I think that this is a problem that many fields and many scholars in disciplines have. I also think it’s a part of discrimination within the academy because you don’t see the academy or departments going out to hire disabled Black people and disabled people generally.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Exactly.
Tommy J. Curry: So there is not that situatedness of the disabled body, especially the disabled Black male body, bringing into these conversations that experience and that recognition.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: It’s so true.
Tommy J. Curry: And I could count on one hand how many disabled Black philosophers I’ve ever met or disabled Black scholars I’ve ever met, and even most of them are men. Because in academia, I think disability is looked upon as defect and making you less capable than other people because the academy is supposed to be this place of ultra-reason and hyper-rationality, which we know is mostly just politics and ideology. But nonetheless, I think that that pretense, that ontologization of a rational body which is able-bodied and mobile and articulate is part of the biases we have in excluding disabled scholars and disabled Black men from certain things.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: So that leads me to what is the downfall and the advantages of doing work in academia?
Tommy J. Curry: What I find to be strange is that I think most of the criticism that you get working on Black men generally is that you are going to be called a misogynist.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes.
Tommy J. Curry: Because nobody wants you to work on Black men and boys. And you’ve seen my talks. I think you can see that I’m not really against anybody. I’m just trying to change what I think is wrong with how we view Black male bodies. So when you start talking about disabled Black men and boys and specifically relate that to pain or trauma, I think that there’s this idea that you’re taking from Black men or that you’re making excuses for Black men. And I don’t have a lot of tolerance for those conversations because Black men who suffer from depression or from dyslexia or from physical ailments or mental illness are never talked about unless they commit violence.
So we don’t have a conversation about how Black men who, say, are not mobile perceive the world. We don’t have a conversation about what love or sociology means to their disabled Black male bodies that are largely pathologized and ostracized from social spaces. But the minute that a Black man who has a mental health issue or has some other kind of disabilities—suffers from depression or suffers from schizophrenia or some other mental illness—harms a person, and God forbid it’s a Black woman, then we’re jumping up and talking about patriarchy and toxic masculinity, etc. We cherry pick the kinds of experiences that we have about Black men and Black male bodies, and then we demonize or rather use disability as a scapegoat to get us all to talking about Black men as toxic masculine.
And I think that that becomes the most clear with the recent stuff that’s been going on with CTE in the NFL, talking about brain damage. Because before, remember, four or five years ago, there was no conversation about these men having brain damage or trauma. The idea was that they were hyper-masculine patriarchs who were abusing women because of the culture of football. And then when you start hearing these conversations about how Black men have brain damage, how they’re suffering from pain, that they’re being drugged, you know, just hold it, the same way that they generally treat physical ailments. One of the things that they tried to do was get me on high-dose painkillers for a long time to deal with the thing I had with my knees and my joints. So those things fundamentally change your personality and character, and nobody wants to talk about the effects of this. They don’t want to talk about the aggression. They don’t want to talk about the mood swings. They don’t want to talk about the suicidal thoughts. Then you take Black men who are dealing with physical ailment, who are dealing with brain damage, and you drug them, trying to mask their symptoms, and then you don’t treat them, you don’t have compassion for them, you don’t even talk about them in terms of papers or research, but you wait until they commit one act of deviant. Then you can blame them.
So yes, I think that this is how that is the danger. The danger’s when you begin talking about Black men and boys as human beings instead of talking about disability as a component, an aspect of Black male life, right? Because in the course of Black men’s lives, our experience of violence, our experience etc. also has these cumulative effects, right? And again, that’s why I think that it’s silly that we don’t have richer conversations about disability. Because even if you start off with the assumption that most Black people do, which is that Black people are able-bodied, the kinds of gun violence that we see, the kinds of brutality we see leads to injury and disability disproportionately in Black men, especially working class.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes.
Tommy J. Curry: So for us not to have a real relationship with disabled intellectuals in the disabled Black community is ignorant on our part, right? Because it’s short-sighted that assumes that our bodies operate in the same way that white bodies do, and that’s just not true. One of the functions of racism is to attack the body in such a way that it doesn’t become functional.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes.
Tommy J. Curry: To ignore it is to ignore the disabled Black body as monstrosity and then make the able-bodied Black body into defect, right? So there’s these different aspects of it. I think it’s a new conversation in the academy because I think that the perception is well, if you’re talking about disability, you’re doing it kind of from this, you’re being charitable; you’re doing it from this philanthropic orientation. Where I’m really more interested in the relationships between Black bodies and how disability is part and parcel of blackness. So I think that’s what causes some of the unfamiliarity with my work, and I think that’s why that part’s never really recognized. You don’t need a comparison to the more provocative stuff about Black men and Black male death.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: So true. It’s interesting how when Black famous singers become disabled, they disappear, like Teddy Pendergrass and Curtis Mayfield. When we have a Black male body that becomes disabled in popular culture, they totally disappear.
Tommy J. Curry: They do. That’s the optics. That’s what I’m saying. That’s the optics. We’re not celebrating— You know, I love our people, but we just— You know what I mean?
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes!
Tommy J. Curry: We have such hang ups about what we’ve been taught, and then we retreat into these really conservative positions because we’re not used to pushing ourselves to think differently.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Totally.
Tommy J. Curry: I think that’s the thing is, how do you re-socialize a whole group of people to understand disability and to see it not just as something we tolerate in our communities but something that we learn to deal with? Because there are extreme gifts that people who aren’t typical contribute to our history and to our culture and to end racism.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Exactly.
Tommy J. Curry: It is just so dangerous for us to keep operating from this space that talks about racism but does not look at disability. And I think that pushed me to write This Nigger’s Broken was precisely— ‘Cause when you read that essay, I think you really see that I really do.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes. I liked that.
Tommy J. Curry: It is like I said. I was like, you have no idea what it means for people to perceive you as a threat. When you’re 250, 260, you’re able to bench basically your whole weight, but it hurts to walk, right? I said, “I want you to imagine a world where you’re perceived as a superhuman predator and threat that will destroy any person in your path.” And I experience the world where walking was painful. And I had live like that. And that’s what I’m saying. That’s why I’m such a fan and advocate of medicine and pain management and therapy, because I know what that’s like. So the world perceived me as completely able-bodied. The world perceived me as hyper-masculine. The world perceived me as not having any pain whatsoever, but only as a threat. And every day was excruciating. Every day, I had to think about, I had to manage mobility in a certain way so that I wouldn’t hurt. And then you have people that are telling you, “Well, you have this.” It’s amazing how many categories. “Well, you have Black male privilege.” Right? You have this kind of privilege. You know, and like I said, my whole life has been, “Well, you’re not man enough. You’re effeminate ‘cause you can’t play sports.” It’s nonsense. But that’s because all those discourses don’t have any concept of pain or disability associated with it.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes, exactly.
Tommy J. Curry: The basic of the disabled Black male body is someone who’s in a wheelchair, right? Or someone who suffers. They don’t see it as various characteristics or ailments that affect different people in different ways, you know? So yeah, we have a long way to go.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yeah, we have a long way to go. So coming out of this, talk about your upcoming writing series that I’m really excited about.
Tommy J. Curry: Oh, yes well, thank you. This is the first book series on Black men on University Press. I’m so excited because I’m hoping that we get Black male scholars from all walks of life that want to contribute. I’ve already had talks with some authors who are interested in writing about Black men and Black boys at play, like the idea of play and what it means to Black boys. We have some writers that are going to talk about mental health and depression, right? I want, I’m hoping, I’m really hoping with the talks I’m doing and some of the stuff that I’m doing with child sexual abuse and disability, that we really get some Black disabled authors to write about Black men and boys. I really look at this as groundbreaking. I look at this as the first academic space where all kind of Black men can talk about what it means to be a Black male and to do this beyond the perspective of Black men as patriarchs, beyond the perspective of Black men as predators, and actually get to situate how do Black men, how do Black disabled men, how do Black men suffering from depression and mental illness experience the world?
And when I say that to me that’s groundbreaking, it is because it situates the humanity of those Black men. It situates what they feel and what they see and how they experience the world outside of what their bodies are perceived as. And I think that that’s such a freeing act, to speak of the world as, “I engage as a Black male who is disabled, who is depressed. And how the world sees me is not the determination of how I think about myself and my role.” And that’s a space that I don’t think Black men have had. I would love for us to be able to start talking about trauma and the sexual vulnerability that disabled Black men have. And what is the process of disability from boy to man?
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Exactly.
Tommy J Curry: That’s something I’m deeply interested in. We don’t have any answers to that question because we always study disability in terms of the effect it has on the body. But what does it mean for a young disabled Black boy to imagine himself as a Black man? And between me and you, that seems like a very simple question. But there’s nothing written about it.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: No, nothing.
Tommy J. Curry: There’s nothing written about it, because I can tell you, I personally didn’t know. I didn’t know what it would be like. I remember being afraid. I didn’t know what it would be like to not be able to walk, experience life in that way. It was fearful, right? I didn’t know what it meant to not be able to do certain things. I had to imagine. I had to create a version of masculinity and manhood that I was confident with, given what I could and could not do. And we don’t have—just like you said—we don’t have positive images of disabled Black men using wheelchairs, right? We don’t see disabled Black men playing specific roles in society. We don’t see disabled Black men representing disability and manhood in ways that would make a Black boy say, “Yes, that is something that I could see myself doing.” So our concepts of Black manhood are limited, generally, even more limited when you add in the various kinds of disabilities than can affect Black men and boys, right? Dyslexia, depression, these are things that Black men suffer disproportionately from many groups. And we have no representations of those.
So yes, that’s what I hope Black Male Studies does. I hope that it creates a literature that allows us to start having conversations about relative Black masculinity that goes beyond just identity, that really does get to how Black men experience and theorize the way their bodies are represented in the world. And some of that means that we’re actually going to run up against Black feminism. We’re going to run up against some of these other discourses that hold these very traditional, conservative, sometimes pathological accounts of Black men. And that’s OK. There’s Black men, right? And if disabled Black men start having their voices heard and their writing acceptable and rewriting history, then things have to change.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes! Totally! I understand the pushback that you’re getting because we get—at the National Black Disability Coalition—we get pushback when we talk about Black Disability Studies. I mean a lot of pushback.
Tommy J. Curry: And what would the pushback be? I know the ideological point, but I mean concrete evidence, what can you really say? It’s just true.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: I know. It’s true, yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Tommy J. Curry: There are disabled Black bodies in the world. These bodies exist in our community. They’ve existed throughout history. We’re not arguing.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes. Well, it tells a big part when I’ve been on the college lecture circuit for 20 years and haven’t been invited to an HCBU, you know? That tells a really big story.
Tommy J. Curry: It does. It does. But I think, to be honest with you, I think it’s because—it’s like I said—we erase disabled scholars. And I think the one position, of perhaps the unexpected position that I get to be in is that, given my history and really being saved by the advances in technology, right, I think I’m able to translate what we usually ignore to reality. Because I’m dedicating how I see Black men as part of the able-bodied/disabled Black male perspective. And I don’t see a lot of people doing that. I think that a lot of people either say, “Well, you’re not disabled. There’s nothing to worry about,” and I just disagree with that. Because there’s so many different aspects, like I said. I mean, to me, pain is just huge. Because the physical/mental afflictions that we experience often result in pain, and we’re not having a real conversation. I mean this is beyond the body, right? So let’s say that you don’t really engage in the identity politics of being able-bodied or disabled. Let’s say that. How is the person suffering? How are they experiencing the world? If they’re in pain 15-20 hours a day, then that should be something that we’re concerned about outside of identity. We don’t even have scholarship on pain.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: No.
Tommy J. Curry: That’s what I’m saying. It’s amazing. We have all kinds of theories about racism: racism is that, racism is this, racism is marginalization, racism is erasure. But what about it’s the ability to neglect pain and suffering? Like a very simple twist of the definition allows us to open up a whole new way of understanding the perceiving, how certain members of our community being imposed upon and seeing the world. So if we’re not interested at the very least in that, then that’s what I’m saying: our concept has blinders. Because I view it as oh, well, Black people are ableist, so ultimately a catastrophe because it destroys our life and liberty. If you looked at it as pain, then what are we neglecting? Or what are we not treating? What are we not assuaging?
There needs to be a commitment, and this entails mental health services. This entails access to primary care. All these things that disabled Black people are denied because of their economic and their racial circumstance, these things that disproportionately affect disabled Black folk in our communities and in our theory. So we have to change how we think about what racism does, and this is why, in The Man-Not, I’m talking about it as population control, I’m talking about it as even beyond the ability to have compassion for, care for many groups of people. And I think that hopefully by pushing this, by pushing it to change how we understand what’s going on in the world that it can at least open us up to get more voices in our own communities heard.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes. Powerful! Thank you so much for your work.
Tommy J. Curry: I’m trying. Thank you so much for reaching out to me. I say these things, and I write these pieces, and I never know if they’re ever heard by the right people. So I truly thank you. So I appreciate it.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Yes. Let’s stay in contact.
Tommy J. Curry: Absolutely, thank you so much for the invitation.
Dr. Tommy J. Curry is an American author and professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University. He is the first African-American professor in the history of the philosophy department at Texas A&M University. Curry received his masters at DePaul University and his doctorate in philosophy from Southern Illinois University.