The class started off with its regular segment of announcements, which consisted of upcoming disability awareness month events in October, an extra credit lecture by Rachel Wonderlin on Dementia care, and one last note about intersectionality from the previous class theory piece, Chris Bell’s “Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal.” Large-group discussions revolved around which characters are read as disabled in Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” and small-group discussions explored the effects of being read as disabled among other topics through our assigned poetry pieces.
Professor Foss prompted the class discussion with a question, whether there are “Particular things about Eva that should not just be read in the lens of disability, but disability, race, and poverty,” echoing his last note about intersectionality from the Chris Bell piece. The class was initially quiet, processing the themes of disability in addition to race and poverty enveloped in the experiences of Sula’s characters. After getting no direct responses to the question, Professor Foss quoted an older book from today’s theory piece author, Rosemarie Garland Thompson, “physical disability neither diminishes nor corrupts Eva’s character, rather confirms Eva’s power. [Eva is a] rewritten Black eve striding the realms ordinary and unordinary, her legs signal presence and empowerment.” From there, Megan pointed the class to today’s theory piece by Rosemarie Garland Thompson, “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory”, she quoted “Female, disabled, and dark bodies are supposed to be dependent, incomplete, vulnerable, and incompetent bodies.” (3). Megan’s and Professor Foss’s evidence persuaded many in the class to acknowledge their points, and as a result several agreed that Eva truly went against the grain of the stereotypes set onto Black disabled women. Professor Foss added that other people have read Eva as a deity or goddess figure despite her disability and asked the class whether they agreed. The class, however, did not directly answer this question even with the proposed evidence of Eva having the “power” in the book to name others, be worshipped by others, and having the decision to kill others such as her own son, Plum, without consequence. Multiple students expressed that they believed Eva was powerful in the sense that her physical disability did not stop her from doing things (e.g., jumping out a window to save her daughter, or taking care of her loved ones for so long), but no one voiced whether she could be directly considered a deity the way Professor Foss described. With no direct responses to the question, Professor Foss made one last remark, postulating that Eva could also be seen as both a deity figure and a disturbingly powerful figure.
While the group could decide whether Eva’s disability weakened or empowered her, they soon realized that this was not the same case for Shadrack’s character. The class seemed to unanimously agree that Eva’s character was much more easily integrated into the community of the Bottom because her prominent disability for much of her life was a physical one. Her missing leg allowed for her to be read as physically disabled even though we concluded that it still did not hinder her from being a strong character. This opened a short discussion on invisible versus visible disabilities, and how they are regarded comparatively. Rachel suggested that with Eva, it was easy to read how it was not her physical disability that made her disagreeable to the readers and other characters, but rather her personality and attitude. In contrast, Shadrack’s disability cannot be so easily demarcated from his personality to the reader. Rachel commented that only Eva’s attitude can be drawn up to comparison to Shadrack’s “madness”, not her disability. Professor Foss describes Shadrack as a “pied piper”, offering strong, but delusive enticement to the community members of the Bottom. Students discussed how the scene where Shadrack calls everyone to the construction site does not help his trustworthiness to readers, and could potentially perpetuate the “warning of messing with people like him”. The discussion of Shadrack’s behavior that added to his inability to be trusted by both readers and the community lead us into the topic of the way he was regarded by Sula in particular. Professor Foss noted that Sula was the only character that seemed to acknowledge Shadrack as a person compared to other community members. However, the class noted how Sula’s death in coincidence of her final discussion with Shadrack, also did not help his character distinction between his personality and disability by potentially sealing her fate.
At this point, Professor Foss posed the question of whether Sula’s birthmark (and fingertip) could be read as a disability, and quotes back to Thomson’s piece on freakery and how some may be read as disabled due to “physical markers or indications”. Much of the class voiced that they could understand how this perspective could be validated given the history of birthmarks being viewed as negative things such as a “witches mark” or cosmetic imperfections when visible. Professor Foss brought back the idea of intersectionality and inquired whether Sula’s personality can be distinguished from her potentially disabling birthmark. He followed this with another point from an older piece by Thomson which suggested that Sula’s birthmark and fingertip are “hyperlegible text from which her community reads her hopes and point of reference for social boundaries, pariah and mark of social order,” and that this seems to be just a few of the many “evils” that are attributed to her character. In this way, Sula’s experiences seem similar to both Eva and Shadrack. Sula’s personality may be easier to distinguish from her personality due to her read physical disability, yet her lack of integration to the community may have been due to her other social identities, like Shadrack. The students concluded that her birthmark has heavy implications of ostracization and closely relates to how neoliberalism persuades consumers to get rid of this imperfection according to current monetary beauty standards.
Finally, we were called into small groups to discuss 4 previously assigned readings: “Until” by Ayisha Knight, “Hypoesthesia” by Laurie Clements Lambeth, “Deaf Blind: Three Squared Cinquian” by Jonh Lee Clark, and “The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window” by Joy Harjo. One of the most prominent themes of “Until” for all groups was the overcoming of social norms into self-love. The author was read as disabled because she is Deaf, but many groups noted her feelings of “not disabled enough,” and noticed how powerful and confident her signing was now that she was able to express herself past the social norms of disability. With “Hypoesthesia”, one of the most prominent features my group and I noticed was how well the author was able to depict the experience of disassociation through the format of the poem. Many other groups also noticed the disassociation of the narrator and, naturally, attributed it to the assault. They also referred to how some may read the narrator as deviant from the “sexual norm” and pathologize their behavior. That deviancy can be read as a disability and is treated pathologically in today’s American society. All groups noted how people make spectacles out of disabled people that can do “mundane” things, such as cook for oneself, for John Lee Clark’s “Deaf Blind” poem. All groups also noted the juxtaposition of being a spectacle to being a “nobody” because the narrator was just doing what everyone else can do, but under the light of a Deaf-blind person. Professor Foss later in large group noted a scholar who called this phenomenon “inspo-porn”. For “The Woman Hanging From the Thirteenth Floor Window”, some groups seemed confused as to what exactly was happening within the poem, but most seemed to understand that there was a incongruence to the way the narrator identified themselves and what was happening in their life.
Ultimately, the class came to conclusions about how characters’ disabilities from Toni Morrison’s “Sula” are read, and other major themes through previously assigned poems which were discussed through small group in this class period. Our discussions showed how students were able to read different characters’ and narrators’ disabilities and their social implications according to our view of social norms. However, the group was also able to explore these implications along the lines of intersectionality, considering not only each characters’ disability, but also class, gender, race, etc. Following how these people may be read as disabled, along with how this may affect or be affected by their other social identities, lead many to wonder how exactly this affected each person’s personal identities, and how we could distinguish the social from the personal.