#BlackDisabledLivesMatter: Q&A with artist Jen White-Johnson
5 minute read
September 9, 2020
Art and popular culture has been a part of every movement, uprising, and revolution. In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Elijah McClain, and countless others, Black disabled people are leading the way and speaking out about the intersection of racism and ableism. In a 2016 piece for The Nation, Britney Wilson, a Black disabled lawyer, wrote about police brutality towards disabled Black people: “We need to analyze when and why race or disability is emphasized to better understand how each identity, and the combination of both identities, may shape public opinion and outcomes.”
In this Q&A, Break the Story Guest Editor Alice Wong interviews Jen White-Johnson, a Black disabled artist, photographer, educator, and designer, who created a series of portraits and signs with the phrase Black Disabled Lives Matter.
White-Johnson, a professor at Bowie State University in Maryland, talks about how being the parent of a neurodivergent Black son politicized her and her work in the midst of racist violence and police brutality this year. She also reflects on the role of disabled artists in changing the narrative and culture.
Alice: Can you tell me how being the parent of Knox, a neurodivergent Black child, politicized you?
Jen: Black families, families of color who have a child who is diagnosed as autistic or ADHD, any kind of neurodivergence, are meant to believe that, “Okay, well, our kid is not normal. Our kid is not perfect, they need to be fixed, they need to be ‘healed,’ they need to adapt and conform.” I learned to do my research, to listen to other autistic advocates, to let that fuel and educate me. I see the way that the Black autistic community is ostracized and misunderstood and attacked or just left out of the conversation in the media. As an artist I ask myself, “What can I do? How does neurodiversity play a role in my family values, my family’s overall expression?” I have a social responsibility to use art to educate; it was a natural response to use art, and it changed me as a mother. I looked at the media and other autistic families and noticed the same kind of narratives. There has to be more to this story. I want to focus on joy and what I don’t see being portrayed.
Alice: I love your stickers with the phrase Autistic Joy. Why is it so important to focus on joy when we’re talking about shifting the narratives about autistic people?
Jen: I wanted to be able to offer a response that was uplifting and empowering. I realized that I could be friends with autistic people, that I could get to know the community and have these really beautiful conversations with them. I realized these are the kinds of relationships I could have with Knox now and in the future.
Alice: In response to the murder of George Floyd, Black artists have been creating powerful work to remember him and countless others. I saw these graphics by you with the phrases Black Autistic Lives Matter and Black Disabled Lives Matter. What prompted you to create these images and what was your process in designing them?
Jen: I wanted to take type and digital illustration and merge them to say something strong, to create some sort of unifying symbol or visual. I thought of the Black Power fist because we’re talking about Black disability and disability justice, and this is a frickin’ revolution, you know? When it came to disability, I used the infinity symbol, which represents neurodiversity.
Black disabled people need to continue being a part of this movement for Black lives. As the mother of a Black autistic son who’s instantly going to be misunderstood by police and other authorities whether he wants to or not because of his disability, I just couldn’t help but think of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and Elijah McClain, who was a kid, a disabled Black kid with sickle cell anemia. I still have my son and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that I’m going to continue to have him. It’s really up to us to continue to remind people that disabled kids are not disposable. They deserve the opportunity to exist. Period! And to exist in their own way.
Alice: It’s been really exciting to see your work show up at protests all over the world. You were at a BLM protest in Washington, D.C., on June 6 with a disabled contingent led by two Black disabled people, Justice Shorter and Keri Gray. What was it like being there and documenting the protest through photography?
Jen: It was my first time going out and social distancing during the pandemic and it was a really beautiful experience. I wanted to be present and a resource. I’m a photojournalist and I wanted to document the narratives of the disability community that day. I was weaving in and out, making sure that we were capturing every chant, every sign, every angle all the way down to the White House. It was phenomenal to see the posters and how people pasted them on cardboard with their own messages along with stories of disabled folks who have been victimized and brutalized by the police: Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and Laquan McDonald.
Alice: You also created digital portraits and your portrait of Oluwatoyin Salau was in a tweet by Representative Ayanna Pressley (D, MA). What did you want to depict in your portrait and what did it mean to you to have it shared by a Congressperson?
Jen: I had done portraits of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. And it was hard. I mean, there have been so many other artists that have been doing similar work. I tried to create a tribute to honor them. As for Toyin Salau, a 19-year-old Florida activist who was murdered in June, it was about making sure that we continue to remember her beauty, and her soul, and who she was. We need to value the life of Black women. Just existing as Black women is an act of resistance. We are our own revolution.
It was amazing to see Congresswoman Pressley embrace my portrait in her repost. It was really unexpected because when I’m creating it’s my way of processing pain and trauma. It’s not really for visibility, or to get commissioned, or for attention. All of the work that we do as art activists is so we can just get it out in the world.
Alice: In a recent article in The Washington Post, you said, “As a Black parent to a seven-year-old Black, autistic son, my sole job is to preserve his present so that he can make it into the future. If our nation continues to show that our young Black autistic men don’t have value, what does that say to our current generation of Black autistic youth?” How can art and popular culture save lives and celebrate those who are marginalized and considered disposable?
Jen: A lot of my artwork comes directly from conversations that I have with other disabled folks. I want to be able to infuse those narratives into my visual representation. Design is about amplification, designing to uplift and helping represent a culture justly. It’s also an opportunity for me to reclaim the narrative. As a Black disabled person who has the opportunity to be able to use art and design to amplify our lives, that’s my job. Period.
I really love my friend Riah Person, who talks about stimming and dance, and shifting how spaces can be inclusive and be really accessible to autistic folks and other disabled people. It’s about what you can bring to that space, and how you can uplift your spirit in the community of other disabled folks, and the challenges and opportunities to reimagine those types of spaces and language. I made a photo zine for my son and one page says, “Beautiful, Black, Autistic Boy. Hugger. Singer.” These are words that we don’t often say or hear about Black people, especially Black men and boys.
My art sends messages that “you are amazing just the way you are and don’t let anybody tell you different. Don’t you forget it either.” And to my son I add: “Because you’re always going to be autistic. You’re going to be an autistic man one day, and you’re going to be amazing.”