Sami Schalk

Black Disability Politics

Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2022.

210 Pages


Reviewed by Keturah Nichols

Sami Schalk’s Black Disability Politics offers a historically informed analysis of the roots of Black disability politics, their divergence from white mainstream disability frameworks, and how Black disability has often been misread. The book links past activism to the present through engagement with eleven contemporary Black cultural workers to show what we can learn from the past and what could be improved upon. Schalk articulates four common traits of Black disability politics demonstrating approaches that “tend to be intersectional but race centered, not (necessarily) based in disability identity, contextualized and historicized, and holistic.” The text centers on the work of the Black Panther Party, and the National Black Women’s Health Program from the 1970s – 2010s, mapping a lineage of Black activism with a disability focus. Situated within the emerging body of scholarship on Black Disability Studies and disability justice the text also engages with Black studies, health science, medical humanities, and history of science and medicine. Composed of an introduction, five chapters, two praxis interludes and what she terms (not a) conclusion, the text reflects on the contributions of our activist ancestors’ social justice work.

The first chapter focuses on the Black disability politics of the Black Panther Party in a period designated as their decline (post-1972). At this time, most leadership roles were occupied by women and there was a notable shift in the nature of the program. This chapter details the importance of the  Black Panther, the BPP’s newspaper, and the 504 sit-in protests. The publication had a broad reach and readership, suggesting that Black people and non-Black allies throughout the country were reading about and engaging with disability as, “integral to collective liberation.” The Panthers played a significant role in the 504 sit-in protests, particularly in the weeks long San Francisco sit-in. The protests align with the BPP’s 10-Point Program and show how they understood coalition work between all marginalized people as central to the success of the movement.  The book also discusses the Oakland Community School and how it incorporated disabled students in their development of pedagogical tools which recognized their unique learning styles and needs. The public school system was failing Black students and this approach served the whole community while responding to the “failures of a one-size-fits-all educational model that centered white, middle-class, and nondisabled youth.”           Schalk continues to write about the BPP in Chapter 2, though she shifts to the carceral nature of psychiatric institutions and resulting psychiatric abuse. She describes the party’s critiques of the overmedicalization of members of marginalized groups and the resulting political organization. They decried psychosurgery due to its potential to “become the primary weapon used by 

prison wardens and hospital administrators.” The chapter also focuses on how the Black Panther amplified the voices of forcibly medicated psychiatric patients whose writing detailed their treatment. Schalk specifically examines the case of Lou Broadus Byers from Oakland, California who was forced to undergo an experimental brain operation that resulted in mental disability. Schalk, like the BPP, holds the medical-industrial complex accountable for enacting disabling violence.

Schalk shifts focus in Chapter 3 to Black Disability Politics in the National Black Women’s Health Project in the 80s and 90s, whose work was a form of Black feminist health activism “that is critically attuned to intersectional gender, race, and class politics.” The chapter historicizes the NBWHP, highlighting how it enacted holistic, cultural, and political approaches to health, such as by engaging in national conferences and leadership institutes, organizing a Walking for Wellness program, and encouraging dialogue around sex and sexuality. Additionally, they published policy briefs, research, and programming on: HIV/AIDS, diabetes, hypertension, and substance abuse, which were specifically affecting Black women. Their work was intersectional with gender and race foci, but they were not a disability rights organization. Noting that Black people are more likely to become disabled through secondary effects and disabling violence, the NBWHP focused on reducing preventable diseases and conditions while simultaneously working for better conditions for people living with chronic illness and disability.

Chapter 4 continues demonstrating the NBWHP’s development of Black disability politics through their work on HIV/AIDS in the 80s and 90s, becoming one of the first Black organizations to centralize Black women’s experiences with the epidemic. NBWHP focused on prevention, of disability and illness while materially supporting people living with them, illuminating how racism, sexism, and classism are central to the conceptions of and approaches to sexual health in the US and how this affected the prevalence and spread of STIs in Black communities. This chapter engages with cure and prevention, and emphasizes that there cannot be a singular response to illness when different illnesses affect bodyminds in particular ways. The NBWHP politicized the issue by connecting it to other activities within the Black community specifically, “medical racism, health-care access, reproductive justice, and the prison industrial complex as political issues for Black people that intersect with the spread of HIV/AIDS in Black communities,” providing concrete reasons for Black communities to care.

Bridging these conversations, Praxis Interlude One reflects on the actions of the BPP and contextualizes the use of language that could be read as ableist by mainstream movements. Similarly, Praxis Interlude Two urges more explicit engagement with disability identity and incorporates the interviews with Black disabled cultural workers. Schalk directly engages with how to enact Black disability politics in these interludes guided by the past.

The final Chapter focuses on the present and incorporates a critique of the Movement for Black lives’ statements demonstrating how Black disabled cultural workers formed the Harriet Tubman Collective as a response. Accordingly, this work is intersectional, and argues that race cannot take precedence over disability activism. No individual, collective, or movement is above critique. The past shapes the present and centering the most marginalized subjects in our politics “will benefit those less marginalized and less impacted as well.” Like Therí Alyce Pickens Mad Blackness :: Black Madness the book ends with a non-traditional conclusion encouraging further engagement with the topic not only as a source of academic inquiry, but also for its political and personal implications. It summarizes the work of the book and points towards its significance and next steps by responding to three guiding questions: What? So what? Now what? Schalk’s final reflection on the 2020 protests around healthcare disparities underscores the importance of the text and urges further incorporation of Black disability politics into the Black liberation movement.

Schalk’s book succeeds in highlighting the ways the BPP and the NBWHP developed Black disability politics in particular, race-conscious ways. Her book provides a framework for understanding how Blackness and disability intersect. Further, it shows an evolution of Schalk’s approach, influenced by the disability justice movement, and her incorporation of scholarship from disability studies and Black studies. Schalk asserts that the text is written for Black people, disabled people, and Black disabled people though others will read and engage with the book. With detailed explanations of language and contextualization of the groups and moments she discusses, the book is accessible to readers in and out of academia and rejects the imperatives of a traditional monograph. Noting this, one potential area of critique is the mobilization of the terms “disability” and “(dis)ability” without clear scaffolding for readers unfamiliar with academic debates about what makes these notions distinct.  Given these points, this book is a necessary and timely intervention for anyone seeking to further their understanding and engagement with Black disability politics.