#BlackAutisticJoy in ADA 30
Timotheus “T.J.” Gordon, Jr.
Preface: While #BlackAutisticJoy is a hashtag that is widely used to express the fun in being black and autistic, I did not come up with the phrase entirely. In fact, I want to give credit to Kayla Smith, who influenced me to come up with the concept in the first place. As an African-American autistic self-advocate, Smith uses social media to spread awareness and acceptance of autistic people in black communities; she came up with #AutisticWhileBlack. She is also the inspiration behind #BlackAutisticJoy. You can follow her on Twitter: @BeingKaylaSmith
I also want to give credit to Keri Gray as well for influencing not only black joy for black autistic people like myself and Smith, but also black disabled, Deaf, and neurodivergent people worldwide. You can follow her on Twitter: @keri_gray
“It’s [Black Joy] the ability to smile [and] even have a moment of enjoying yourself in an environment and in a society that is designed for us to be killed, to be imprisoned, to just not enjoy our lives or to survive…to even enjoy it for that matter to then have moments to enjoy life is a resistance”.
Black boy/girl joy
black [boy/girl] magic
black and proud
black and beautiful
You can use any of these terms to describe the phenomenon, in which many manifestations of black culture are celebrated and promoted by people in the African Diaspora. Hip-Hop, rap, r&b, art, sports, politics, cosmetology, cooking, nerdom…you name it! At any rate, Black Joy and black excellence keeps black people going.
I would interpret Kleaver Cruz’s the notion of Black Joy as the following in my own viewpoint:
Black Joy has no universal definition, despite what people attempt to say. It transcends hip-hop, fashion, black consciousness of the month, and other popular or trending topics in the African Diaspora. To me, black joy is putting your stake in what makes you happy and what makes you wake up in the morning, while adding your blackness (however you may see it) into the things you care about and enjoy the most. For instance, black joy to one person may be cosplaying and not giving an inch of damn if someone says “You can’t cosplay this person because you’re black and this person is not black.” Or, to others, black joy is celebrating the harvest of corn, peppers, and all the plants and fruits of the garden.
I would stand by that take of Black Joy. With the coronavirus outbreak, we are at a crucial position to re-define what it means to display Black Joy throughout black communities worldwide. I am sad that we cannot display our Black Joy in our usual way due to COVID-19, or “the Rona” as some of my friends would call it. Hell, I miss going out to bars and lounges, where I could drink and talk smack with friends about the game on the TV…or just any random fun stuff. I yearn to make my walks along Lake Michigan again, saying hello to the dogs passing by and finding a spot to write while I marvel at my beautiful Chi-Town. Take me back to weekend kickbacks, where we play Uno or some fighting game on PlayStation 4, and crack nerdy jokes.
I understand that the Rona is altering our plans to go to the barbeques and block parties and cons. However, think of this current situation not as a total loss of black culture, but rather a reshaping of how we express black culture and how we make it accessible to ALL black people. Black Joy should not be limited to just a certain brand that all black people should subscribe to, but rather expand into an infinite spectrum where we can weave our other identities into the forever growing African Diaspora.
I’m writing about Black Joy because I am experiencing my own version of Black Joy called #BlackAutisticJoy. I get the pleasure of simultaneously celebrating the spoils of black culture and autpunk (or you can also call it autistic culture); I like to juxtapose the two cultures every chance I get. Whether I show off my Autism Acceptance logo based on the outline of my motherland Africa, display my cooking abilities, narrate scenes from movies on TikTok, shake my locs when I hear crunk music, or record myself playing NHL 94 on my PC, I carry both identities with pride. I am not afraid to show the best of both worlds; no wonder why some of my peers view me as strange or weird. I’ll take that!
To me, #BlackAutisticJoy has changed throughout the 30-year history of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). To be honest, I have been lucky to have been born during these two landmark acts; I was going on three-years old when Congress passed the ADA and President George H.W. Bush signed ADA into law. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) already existed by the time I was born. I lived most of my life seeing the gradual impact of IDEA and ADA on myself and my peers; I cannot imagine life without those two crucial legislations.
Back when I was 2 ½ years old in the summer of 1990, I was first diagnosed with autism (back then they called it a severe developmental delay). ADA was passed around the same time. If the ADA and IDEA never existed before I was born, I don’t know if #BlackAutisticJoy would have been a possibility due to lack of legal rights to education, public transportation, employment, etc.…along with negative cultural views of neurodivergent people in black communities at the time.
As I progressed in elementary school, I began to feel the effects of how IDEA could open doors for diverse learners like myself.
I cannot recall the accommodations that I’ve gotten because my primary accommodation was getting mainstreamed to a ‘General Ed.’ classroom. In fact, I did not take full advantage of accommodations until I pursued my Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing at Savannah College of Art and Design at Atlanta. I would eventually get extra time on exams and papers, along with receiving detailed, written instructions on school assignments. Perhaps I stuck with trying to be as neurotypical and independent as my peers for a long time, refusing to get help due the fear of being called “slow” or “weak” because of my disability. Indeed, I harbored internal ableism inside me. But that’s how I survived most of my life until the 2010s.
However, I started out by going back-and-forth between my diverse learning room and, for certain subjects like reading and math, my mainstream room. However, I started to advocate for my own IEP (Individualized Educational Program) plan, in which I wanted to spend all my time with my peers in general education classes. With my mother’s help and my school staff’s support, I eventually attended mainstreamed classes all day, except for when I had substitute teachers*.
IDEA enabled me to develop my Black Joy early on, by gaining more access to books on history (especially black history) in my school library and home room. I enjoyed reading during lunch sometimes, instead of going to recess. I think that’s where my passion for reading non-fiction works and poetry comes from. I also got to go to the same classroom and places as my neurotypical peers.
Despite enjoying the benefits of IDEA, the cultural impact that IDEA and ADA had on the black community wasn’t fully felt by the people in that community. Segregated classrooms were a common place for black students with disabilities like me, and most of the places I went to in my hood in Chicago weren’t as accessible as they are now. And even if I saw semi-physically accessible places, like Greater Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church and some of the large stores such as Walgreens or Jewel’s, some of those places were not accessible enough for neurodivergent people. For instance, some churches did not have any sensory rooms that people could go to if they were overstimulated by noises.
IDEA and ADA did not account for how places of worship, schools, and businesses in black neighborhoods should be encouraged to make things accessible for people on the autism spectrum; I had to adjust to the culture around me and there were no accommodations. It would have been difficult to police how stakeholders in black communities would have treated neurodivergent black folks; either I learn how to tune out the noisy environments and learn to socialize like my peers, or get ostracized and left behind in the black community.
Keep in mind that some of the identities that we honor today weren’t accepted or known yet in black communities during my childhood. For instance, disability pride wasn’t in my consciousness throughout my childhood, including teen years. I didn’t know people who were proud to be disabled, Deaf, neurodivergent, and/or autistic at first, though I saw disabled folks all the time in diverse learning classrooms. I definitely didn’t know of any famous black autistic people. I didn’t want to embrace my autism; I want to be as good (or better) than everyone else in whatever I do, and I couldn’t do that staying in a “special ed” class all day. It was imperative for me to mainstream fully, and my hard work in academics and sports propelled me to leave Illinois for undergraduate college with scholarships. Yet, I was insecure because I have no identity to cling on to other than what I do in sports and school. I was like the android Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, not quite human and someone who wanted to learn how to blend in with the rest of my peers. I was not humanly there because I couldn’t connect to what Black joy was in the 90s and 2000s.
Black joy has always been there before Kleaver Cruz; he just gave a name to something that’s been happening since the beginning of time. In Black Joy, we celebrate the fruits of our creativity and accomplishments, despite the constant oppression we face in the African Diaspora. But in the Black Joy I grew up on, it was an “either you’re in or you’re out” type deal. Nothing outside the norms.
For black kids like me, between the 1990 and 2000s, Black Joy was sports, R&B, Hip-Hop, fashion, video games and the coolest shows in black culture at that time such as 106 and Park and Air Jordans. You were uncool if you didn’t follow any of those things.
Even though I was apologetically autistic, I was unapologetic in what TIMOTHEUS THE NERD liked. I took pleasure in reading books about history and sports and science, reciting the order of American presidents, following fixations on the Pokemon universe, and watching the Stock Market before enjoying programs from Fox Kids during the weekdays. Eeyup, I was totally outside of the norm in the black community. That’s probably why I had a few good friends in my childhood and most would mock me for my nerdom.
Still, if you did something well within the realm of black joy, you’re cool. My love and knowledge of sports, along with sharing passion for video games with peers and family members, brought me closer to the neurotypical black community. Once I get into sports and video games, I’m just one of the guys having fun. Not the weird nerdy kid.
That entrance into “mainstream” Black Joy also happened because there were people in black communities who were willing to integrate disabled folks into their space and allow them to flourish. Folks like Reverend Maceo Woods, who told his congregation at Christian Tabernacle Church to respect me and my mother and also found ways to include and accommodate me during services. I also want to give a shout-out to my coach and physical education instructor at the after-school program at Foster Park, Ron Crenshaw, for showing me the ropes on how to play various sports (e.g. football, basketball, floor hockey), along with giving me opportunities to play for his teams with neurotypical peers.
When disabled folks are included into the community, disabled folks can pursue their dreams without fear.
Fast forward to 2020…
Black joy is becoming more accessible to everyone! What better example to highlight that accessibility than how black disabled people are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. You can watch parties and events take place in streaming services, you can connect with family and friends on FaceTime or House Party, you can have access to any place you want since most places are ADA accessible, and much more. Even before COVID-19, I was proud of black communities beginning to cater more to the black disability community. We can work, we can go to any school we want, we can go to more places, we can be unapologetically black AND disabled at the same time.
Yes, you heard that right: we can be unapologetically black AND disabled at the same time! Thanks to the increasing intersection of blackness with other marginalized identities, such as the LGBT+ community and disability community, blackness is no longer a singular expectation, but rather a wide rainbow of experiences within the global black culture. Let’s not forget how black people are making their mark in ANY thing, from politics and entertainment to geekery, fencing, hockey, and other things that were white-dominated and exclusive a decade or two ago.
You also have the increased access to disability culture in marginalized communities. We are learning to embrace disability pride and self-advocacy, and have more access to learning about how to be in your skin as a disabled person. You could make the argument that without that access, we probably won’t see a rise in black disabled activists, professionals and celebrities, and I probably wouldn’t have taken my self-advocacy into new territories. Without the ADA and IDEA, I would not have learned to be okay with asking for accommodations, and not seeing them as a burden to the black community.
#BlackAutisticJoy is made possible by intersectionality. I’m still the same sports and video game guy you can talk to if you wanna talk NFL or retro games at kickbacks. But I could be celebrated for being a goofball, talented academic, cosplayer, a-jack-of-all-trades, and a chill person too. People can love me for all of me. My blackness is MY take on blackness. I own and create my Black Joy. I could use #BlackAutisticJoy in my work in academia, writing, photography, and self-advocacy. This is partly thanks to ADA and IDEA, but mostly because of increasing inclusion and acceptance of the disability community.
We still have a long way to go before we fully experience black joy without barriers. Thirty years after it was signed into law, the ADA is not the only answer to ending oppression among black autistic, Deaf, disabled, and neurodivergent people. The ADA must be more than a law that requires compliance and it should do more than provide access to employment, education, and basic needs.
We need to create cultural access to all important things in black communities, as well as physical and mental access. We need access to buildings, information, essential needs, and other things that are important to the black community. We want to be included and participate in various aspects that keep the black community vibrant, such as raising families, participate in many parts of black culture (e.g. playing sports, join groups at churches and mosques, enjoy the nightlife, etc.), and much more.
For instance, would it be great if all disabled people in marginalized communities have cultural access and the legal right to parenthood, without facing stigma or discrimination of being a disabled parent of color? As an autistic black father, I fear that we still have barriers in getting the accommodations and encouragement needed to be great parents while nurturing a new generation. In my case, it’s seeking help in finding ways to raise children with accommodations, such as setting a system to do less multitasking so I won’t endanger myself and children that I look after or raise (especially my firstborn son, Theo). I know that parents are supposed to multitask, but what about black autistic parents who suck at multitasking and are afraid to do such tasks in fear of messing up or harming the child? How can we get tools or accommodations so we can do all the important things in parenthood?
That’s pretty much my #BlackAutisticJoy and #ADA30inColor story. Though there is more work to be done, we are getting closer to a more inclusive and vibrant black community. In order to keep the momentum, we should not only fight to keep ADA and IDEA, but also strengthen and update the language to address topics that we didn’t see coming 30 years ago, such as intersectionality and equity in enjoying life in any place.
*Stemming from an incident where a substitute teacher grabbed my arm, plus dealing with increased bullying whenever we had a substitute teacher, I would try to avoid going to classes when my usual teacher is out. I had to stop that practice once I went to high school.
Timotheus “T.J.” Gordon Jr. is an autistic writer and researcher-activist in Chicago, IL. He is one of the co-founders of Chicagoland Disabled People of Color Coalition, also known as Chicagoland DPOCC. Supported by the Institute of Disability and Human Development, Chicagoland DPOCC promotes disability acceptance and self-advocacy in communities of color throughout the Chicagoland area.
As a member of Advance Your Leadership Power (AYLP), a racial/disability justice group within Access Living, Timotheus supports and helps lead campaigns on combating police violence and mental health within the Chicagoland disability community. He is the creator of the Black Autist, a blog and social media outlet that promotes autism and disability acceptance in the African Diaspora. Timotheus uses writing and social media to discuss topics on disability in media, disability pride in marginalized communities, and caregiver violence against people with disabilities.
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