Black liberation requires making room for uncomfortable manifestations of mental illness
Are people prepared for a world where increased mental health services doesn't equate to the disappearance of neurodivergence altogether?
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By Zaynab Shahar
Over the past couple of years, I’ve felt a slow, creeping awareness of the intersections between disability and carceral violence. The murders of Charleena Lyles and Keith Lamont Scott momentarily forced a long overdue conversation about the intersections of race, gender, and neurodivergence (commonly referred to as mental illness). For a moment in time, it almost seemed as though the seeds for a Black disability justice framework would finally germinate and take root firmly within Black liberation and abolition movements.
Yet, as soon as it came, it all but completely dissipated. In its place remains a rising call for “Care Not Cops.” As it stands, “care not cops” is shorthand demanding more social services as opposed to increased fiscal investment in policing and prisons. It articulates an abolitionist understanding of healing from the multi-faceted harms the carceral state regularly inflicts on both the incarcerated and people of the free world. “Care not cops” also understands the relationship between the decline of social services and the rise of mass incarceration.
In my own town of Chicago, the rallying cry is acutely reflected by three movements: No Cop Academy, Care Not Cops UChicago, and the Mental Health Movement. In the lead up to Chicago’s mayoral election, No Cop Academy pushed against a proposal to spend $95 million dollars on a West-side police training facility. Youth organizers launched a campaign dreaming up better uses of $95 million dollars, with funding mental health care clinics as part of that freedom dream.
This demand builds off the work of the Mental Health Movement, a multi-organization coalition which emerged in 2012 in response to Rahm Emanuel shuddering over of the city’s mental health clinics. More recently, #CareNotCops at the University of Chicago emerged in response to the shooting of student Charles Thomas. Thomas’s shooting and subsequent treatment by UCPD reignited a campus debate not only about the role of U of Chicago’s police force but the disproportionate amount of funding they receive in contrast to student mental health services. Together, all three campaigns are united by similar contentions over fiscal priorities, the availability of social services, and communal well being.
But as “care not cops” is gaining traction, I often wonder what kind of care do people have in mind. If neurodivergence really holds space within our Black freedom dreams, then what are our psychologies of liberation to make it possible?
By psychologies of liberation, I mean a framework for understanding the existence of neurodivergent Black folks that identifies the psychic impact of living in an anti-Black world but purposes community-oriented solutions.
Articulating Black psychologies of liberation would necessarily force a couple of difficult conversations about health and wellbeing. For one, a reframing of Black psychologies of liberation away from the various kinds of bootstrap wellness theory that often pervades discourse on Black wellness is necessary, if not long overdue.
If “Black excellence,” has forced conversations around individualism and achievement, then the fallacy of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” has been recognized as its ideological predecessor. Meritocracy is a myth and individual hard work isn’t enough to overcome structural barriers and achieve socio-economic ascension. Nor should a specific notion of achievement be a factor in someone’s worth to the community.
Yet that same energy is rarely applied when it comes to issues of Black body-mind wellness. Despite numerous reports of anti-Black medical bias regarding pain tolerance, maternal mortality, and diagnostic testing, many skinfolk still treat health and wellness as if all that’s required is a hearty tug on the bootstraps. If only Black folks ate healthier and exercised more, our problems would be solved!
It’s no coincidence that proponents of bootstrap wellness theory tend to sound like the lovechild of Daniel Moynahan and Weight Watchers. It ignores structural realities for anti-Black pathologizations of what is “innately” wrong with Black people. In doing so, bootstrap wellness theory contributes to stigma around disability, chronic illness and pain, and neurodivergence. Instead of offering community care, bootstrap wellness theory reinforces the isolation and pathologization of Black body-minds whose problems should be dealt with out of sight, out of mind.
If we really want Black body-minds to get free, then care work has to be at the center of how we get free. Care work is rooted in an awareness of structural realities and how communities can work together to elicit change. Care work isn’t contingent upon individual success, achievement, perceived “strength” or “weakness.” It is contingent upon how we choose to be in community with each other, despite living in a society that stresses individualism and isolation.
Finally, Black psychologies of liberation would force us to reckon with the reality that conventional psychiatry, as it currently exists, would have to be abolished. An arm of the carceral state, conventional psychiatry is rooted in pathologies and practices that promote curative violence as treatment. Curative violence ranges from forced drugging, restraints, forms of sensory deprivation, involuntary commitment (short-term), and civil commitment (long-term). When you read stories or see videos of Black people experiencing brutality in psychiatric facilities by staff or the police, the logic of curative violence is at work.
Are people prepared for a world where increased mental health services doesn’t linearly equate to the disappearance of neurodivergence (or disability) altogether?
Are people prepared for the reality that there will still be mad niggas at the end of the world?
Do Black freedom futures include folks who hear voices, have multiple personalities, are unmedicated?
Do our Black freedom dreams have room for the uncomfortable manifestations of mental illness?
Can we relinquish our fears of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that are chimerical more than they are realistic? Can we relinquish the weird tendency to pathologize visible neurodivergence through spiritual rhetoric? Are we okay if the person who hears voices doesn’t understand themselves as the next Lauren Olamina? Are we ready for regular degular batshit niggas who have no other-wordly contribution to society?
Are there mad niggas in the future?
I ask because in many Black movement spaces, “disability justice” equates to a stated “anti-ableist” politic that somehow requires no further elucidation. Mental health is typically not incorporated into a politic of “anti-ableism.” If mental health is mentioned, it’s usually a conversation about structural barriers to accessing care and not treatment of neurodivergent folks in the wider world. You might rarely hear people try to correct themselves on not using words like “crazy” or “bipolar” flippantly. It is often not mentioned that such verbiage is a reflection of not only ableism, but more accurately saneism—discrimination against neurodivergent folks.
Black psychologies of liberation necessitate a working understanding of how saneism and anti-Blackness are intertwined. Understanding saneism through the lens of anti-Blackness illuminates the role of conventional psychiatry’s role in purporting anti-Black pathologies of “psycho-social deviance.”
A good example of this is Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright’s essay “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race” where he defined drapetomania as “the disease causing negros to run away” and proposed various “preventative treatment methods” which amounted to the brutalizing and disabling of enslaved Africans. Cartwright’s drapetomania is a spectre that continues to haunt the way Black-body minds interact with conventional psychiatry as an arm of the carceral state.
Through a lens of anti-Black saneism, we can take Frank Wilderson seriously when he suggests that policing and “and the aggressivity towards Blackness” are “a form of psychic health and well being for the rest of the world.” We can understand “myths of (Black) criminality” as extensions of Cartwright’s drapetomania that are in turn carried out by the carceral state.
A lens of ant-Black saneism would better equip Black liberation movements to not only address the injustices faced by the Charleena Lyles and Keith Lamont Scotts of the world but create a new world where Black neurodivergence can fully represent. Even if Lyles and Scott didn’t necessarily understand themselves as “mad” or even neurodivergent, we the living must understand that freedom from violence means freedom from psychiatric violence.
Disability justice, anti-psychiatry, mad movements, and radical psych spaces have long articulated the need for cognitive liberty– the right to mental self-determination. These movements are spaces of guerilla knowledge and skill sharing. One such prominent example is the Icarus Project, which regularly hosts webinars and has a private facebook group for BIPOC Icarus folks. QTPOC Mental Health has a facebook for QTPOC folks to trade in knowledge, personal experiences, and sometimes pure pain and frustration.
I’m a member of both groups, as well as groups for mad studies (as well as a queer & trans group for mad studies), decolonial psychology, ecopsychology, and community/liberation psychology. In these groups, I watch people share resources and freedom dreams, wide-ranging fleeting dreams of cognitive liberty. Our body-minds conspire together to envision what mental health care could be when the carceral state and conventional psychiatry are abolished. I imagine when that day comes we will dance on the rubble of institutions and warehouses that inflict more trauma in the name of “treatment” than they’re capable of alleviating.
Mad niggas, we make mad maps built on freedom dreams on how to find the yellow brick road that leads to the end of the world.
Zaynab Shahar is a writer and lackadaisical queer faith worker based in Chicago, IL. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in comparative religion and queer-feminist hermaneutics at Chicago Theological Seminary. Outside of academia she focuses on queer muslim cultural work, combating anti-black racism in Muslim communities, and the@logical approaches to prison abolition.