On the Ancestral Plane: Crip Hand Me Downs and the Legacy of Our Movements
My favorite boots are socks. Crip socks. Made out of brown leather to look like shoes, wearing them out in public as a wheelchair user is still socially acceptable. I loved these boot socks unabashedly, and wore them every day until two years ago, when I slipped in the bathroom at work. I fell because socks, unlike real actual shoes, do not have anti-grip soles (or soles in general). A nondisabled coworker had to check on me on the bathroom floor. No incident report filed, but it was disabled childhood humiliation relived all over again. I put the boots away, dismayed and furious at how much I let myself love shoes that could cause physical injury.
I don’t have these kinds of strong of feelings about all articles of clothing. These boot socks are special. These boots were worn by two of my personal heroes, crip elders who became crip ancestors when they passed. Harriet McBryde Johnson, an American writer and disability rights attorney, went head to head against ableist assholes Peter Singer and Jerry Lewis, and wore them in South Carolina. Her sister sewed these shoes for her. Harriet’s writing meant so much to me that ‘Harriet’ has been the secret name I’ve tucked away should if I ever have the honor to name someone one day. When Harriet died, or maybe before, the shoes were gifted to her friend Laura Hershey in Colorado. Laura was/is equally remarkable. A queer disabled poet and brilliant feminist thinker, her poetry described experiences the majority of people can’t fathom and still, resonated with people across all kinds of backgrounds. She was one of my favorite poets as much as Harriet was one of my favorite authors. When Laura died, her partner Robin Stephens, who I did not know at the time, asked for my address. The boot socks generously arrived here in California two weeks later. I don’t understand why I was the lucky recipient, but I am honored to be in this lineage. Wearing them made me feel powerful and good in my body. That’s why I was so let down when I fell…it felt like my ancestors let me down. Like my ancestors didn’t “know better” and it impacted me. It’s not fair or reasonable to them, but it’s how I felt.
I think about crip ancestorship often. It is tied to crip eldership for me, a related but different topic. So many disabled people live short lives, largely because of social determinants of health like lack of healthcare, housing, clean air and water, or having basic needs met. Other times the short lives are merely one truth of our bodyminds, like the neuromuscular conditions Harriet, Laura and I have. I do not know a lot about spirituality or what happens when we die, but my crip queer Korean life makes me believe that our earthly bodyminds is but a fraction, and not considering our ancestors is electing only to see a glimpse of who we are. People sometimes assume ancestorship is reserved for those of biological relation, but a queered or cripped understanding of ancestorship holds that, such as in flesh, our deepest relationships are with people we choose to be connected to and honor day after day.
Ancestorship, like love, is expansive and breaks manmade boundaries cast upon it, like the nuclear family model or artificial nation state borders. My ancestors are disabled people who lived looking out of institution windows wanting so much more for themselves. It’s because of them that I know that, in reflecting on what is a “good” life, an opportunity to contribute is as important as receiving supports one needs. My ancestors are people torn apart from loves by war and displacement. It’s because of them I know the power of building home with whatever you have, wherever you are, whoever you are with. My ancestors are queers who lived in the American South. It’s because of them I understand the importance of relationships, place and living life big, even if it is dangerous. All of my ancestors know longing. Longing is often our connecting place.
I believe that our ancestors laugh, cry, hurt, rage, celebrate with us. Most importantly, I believe they learn as we are learning, just as we learn from them. We grow knowledge and movements with them. We crip futurism with them. We demand and entice the world to change the way things have always been done, with them. We change ourselves with them. They learn through us. When we become ancestors, we will also continue to learn.
I speculate that Grace Lee Boggs is loving the conversations happening right now about disability in the context of what it means to be human, and as Grace’s friends the Fialka Feldmans said to me last week, would ponder that the reason to add disability justice to social justice is not just because it’s another element of diversity or representation, but rather because disability justice (and disability itself) has the potential to fundamentally transform everything we think about quality of life, purpose, work, relationships, belonging. As a new colleague Ria DasGupta said in a meeting about cripping college campus this week, “we can no longer afford add and stir politics”.
I speculate that a lot of the radical women of color thought leaders behind Third Wave Feminism are watching us give ourselves permission to be who we are in our bodyminds. Trans liberation is changing the way some of them talk about their genders. They conceptualize the work being done at the fat-disability intersection to be an experiment in both communities talking through the things both most want to avoid. The questions we are asking about the “ethics of pace” (Moya Bailey) tickle their brains. There are so many threads of conversation but at the end of the day, the ancestors would be the first to name that a lot of our contemporary politics are practical ones in nature — wanting loved ones to live life well, to have needs met, to experience joy, to love, to do what needs to be done, to feel freedom. We all want things to be better for future generations, and ourselves and our ancestors too.
I speculate that soon, our recently departed Carrie Ann Lucas will settle into her ancestorship. She will remind people to be fierce and unapologetic in all things. She’ll trailblaze wherever she is, just as she did here. She will continue to transform how we think about the world and how to be in it, especially around the importance of showing up, loving hard, remembering ritual, giving 200%, believing in yourself and each other when others are foolish not to, creating the community/outfit/experience/vocation you wish for yourself. I wonder what she might learn from us too.
I wear my boots. Not on days where I need to transfer standing on tile but often. My ancestors and I are learning and loving. Together.
Stacey Milbern is a writer and organizer in Oakland, CA. She’s thankful for the experience of being at the forefront of disability justice with other people for 14 years. You can find out more about Stacey’s writing by following her on Facebook.
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