Therí Alyce Pickens

Black Madness :: Mad Blackness

Duke University Press, 2019

176 pages


Reviewed by Morgan Hamill

As a field, disability studies often approaches questions of disability from a position of assumed whiteness, rarely (if ever) considering race as integral to disability discourse. Meanwhile, Black studies has focused on issues of embodiment and physical disability, but in large part fails to engage questions of cognitive disability. In Black Madness :: Mad Blackness, Therí Alyce Pickens grapples with these critical gaps. She takes her cue from scholar and activist Christopher Bell, who in much of his work pushed for intersectional approaches to Black studies and disability studies. Pickens builds on her previous book, New Body Politics: Narrating Arab and Black Identity in the Contemporary United States (2014), which approaches Black experience from a disability-studies perspective. She also extends Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s foundational work by incorporating Blackness into Thomson’s approach to physical disability. Pickens tells us that “relationships between Blackness and madness (and race and disability more generally) are constituted within the fissures, breaks, and gaps in critical and literary texts,” and that this is especially evident in speculative fiction. Pickens wants readers to be “wary of projects that locate resistance on Black mad bodies solely in service of white bodies,” especially where this happens in fiction, long a site of erasure for Blackness and Black bodies.     

Black Madness :: Mad Blackness advocates intersectionality by mobilizing works of fiction as theoretical sources alongside traditional academic criticism and other historical works. Throughout her work, Pickens adroitly maneuvers through these critical and creative spaces, often entangling the two. Black Madness :: Mad Blackness productively places such works in overlapping conversations that “refer back to each other, revise, augment, and, sometimes [. . .] contradict” each other. One such conversation examines the concept of mutual constitution in intersectional criticism. Pickens acknowledges that proponents of mutual constitution tend to define Blackness and disability as enmeshed and, in many ways, concurrent. In Pickens’s view, mutual constitution thus limits critics to two reading strategies: “[h]istoricizing projects assume linear progressive narratives in which Blacks and whites occupy the same temporal place; recuperative projects require Black disabled bodies to bear up under the weight of white redemption.” Because these divergent readings leave little room for critical alternatives, Pickens brings in a work of fiction, Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling (2005), to stage a creative alternative. Pickens shows that in Fledgling the “presence of Black madness allows for the partial unmaking of the logics that govern the linear progressive idea of time and space. Blackness and madness discomfort and confuse, particularly in intimate spaces where their cleaving is not possible,” thereby challenging the existing methods of using mutual constitution as a reading strategy. To Pickens, novelists, particularly writers of Black speculative fiction, are as visionary as any literary critic; speculative fiction presents a creative and imaginative genre that not only quite literally disrupts time and space, but also questions a number of white, ableist, and Western assumptions.

Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000) drives Pickens’s second conversation. Here, Pickens turns away from examples of Black madness and toward examples of mad Blackness. For Pickens, the word ‘mad’ modifies the word ‘Black’ in several ways: it intensifies Blackness, implies insanity and anger, evokes excess, and undoes linearity. Throughout Hopkinson’s text, Pickens links silence, speech, and sanity with madness. She places particular emphasis on Hopkinson’s rejection of simple binaries. Pickens shows both how Hopkinson complicates typical binaries to portray complex constellations of relationships and how, further, Hopkinson directly engages mad Blackness in two key ways. First, Hopkinson opens the possibility of reading in narrative folds and writing between narrative silences. For example, Hopkinson uses one protagonist’s productive silence to challenge the idea that cognitive disability is neither intelligent nor intelligible. In this example, the protagonist’s worth isn’t predicated on her ability to generate speech, and her silence “forces an expansion of how we interact with language” and questions ableist assumptions. Second, Hopkinson complicates the relationships between animacy, whiteness, Blackness, and humanity. Using Hopkinson’s work, Pickens shows that ableism “requires a strict line between animals and humans” and that “real humanity requires shunning a connection to animals.” According to Pickens, artificial intelligence and animal-like figures in Midnight Robber challenge notions of humanity by unmaking the “belief in the complete uniqueness of human creative autonomy.”

In her third conversation, Pickens engages with Tananarive Due’s African Immortals series (1997-2011). Here, Pickens notes that ‘human’ is an exclusive, rather than inclusive, category, in which the default human is the ableist white cis-het male. Other categories, such as Blackness, are—by default—thus excluded from qualifying as human and are therefore erased from time and space. As such, Pickens argues that “the ideology of ability shuttles us away from the capaciousness of the category human.” As in Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber, one might read or write in the gaps, the silences, and the folds—and this is exactly what Due does. Pickens shows that Due uses such narrative gaps to expand, break down, and modify the category of human, ultimately abandoning the concept of the human altogether. Due accomplishes this in part by including “disability, particularly madness, as part of the structure of the text,” as when Due writes about desiring Blackness and seeking disabled Black communities. Perhaps most significantly for Pickens, Due’s novel questions healthcare, care work, and disability in the Black community by examining “what gets sacrificed in the desire for wellness and longevity,” especially when ability is prized at any cost.

By engaging creative works as theoretical sources, Pickens finds a new language for critics and critical discourse in both disability studies and Black studies. For Pickens, madness resists logics of racism and ableism through what Pickens calls madness’s “lexical range.” The simultaneously conflicting and overlapping definitions and connotations of madness present a unique possibility, a choice “to rest in the vagueness and insult madness brings” while simultaneously critiquing and “resisting an uncritical celebration of madness as experience or as metaphor.” Madness unsettles a social model of disability that privileges mental ability and “dismisses madness as a viable subject position,” erasing Black agency in the process. Mad Blackness recovers the deliberate vagueries of this lost agency; it “refuses linear temporality, invaginates space, deposes ocularity for sonic knowledge, embraces silence, pursues control, and relinquishes power, all at the same time.” For Pickens, mad Blackness is a threshold of intersectionality and a new beginning. In the end, Pickens herself eschews the linearity and silence of conclusion with a final image: a second cover page, waiting to be opened.