Guest Lecturer Breaks Down Race and Able-Mindedness

Dr. Sami Schalk visited campus to give her talk “Black Women’s Speculative Fiction and the Deconstruction of Able-Mindedness” on Thursday, March 7 in the Coykendall Science Building auditorium. 

The talk started with an edited excerpt from Schalk’s book “Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction,” and was followed by a question and answer discussion between Schalk and the audience. 

“[In her book] she argues that black women of speculative fiction … change the way we read and interpret categories like disability, race, gender and sexuality within the context of these non realist texts,” said Womens Gender and Sexuality Studies Assistant Professor Jessica Pabón in her introduction to Schalk. 

Throughout the book, Schalk refers to narratives which represent the literal injuries that were suffered under slavery as well as being a metaphor for the legacy of racial violence. In the excerpt Schalk read at the talk, she deals solely with the book “Stigmata” by Phyllis Alesia Perry.

“‘Stigmata’ uses disability to critique the racist, sexist and ableist construction of able-mindedness,” Schalk said. 

Able-mindedness is the idea of a non-disabled mind. Schalk believes that straying from social norms, especially those of race and gender, has historically been interpreted as having a mental disability. In turn, those who follow their race and gender norms are considered to be able-minded. 

Schalk goes on to say that while marginalized people aren’t always specifically labeled as mentally disabled, they are always being threatened by this label. 

“The line between able-mindedness and mental disability is not stable,” Schalk said. “Accusations of being ‘too sensitive’ can easily become labels of ‘paranoia.’ Allegations of being ‘too emotional’ can swiftly move into the categorizations of ‘hysterical’ and ‘volatile.’ Disabled and non-disabled people from marginalized groups are accused of behaving outside the realm of able-mindedness as a way of denying or erasing marginalized experiences of the world.” 

During her talk, Schalk continued to refer to the book “Stigmata” to illustrate the points she hopes to make.

“The main character, Lizzie, gets a family heirloom and starts to experience her ancestors memories,” Schalk said. 

Lizzie is then institutionalized at age 20 and not released for 14 years. Schalk focuses on how others interpret Lizzie’s experience and how her reaction to those interpretations deconstructs able-mindedness. 

At the end of her excerpt, Schalk tied everything together with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“Black people, especially black men, are regularly represented and perceived as threats, as inherently existing outside the boundaries of able-mindedness because they are somehow dangerously lacking in self-control,” Schalk said. “Black people’s positioning outside of able-mindedness also allows for us to be disbelieved about our experiences of oppression [and] violence.”

“I’m thinking about the ways disability becomes a privilege for certain people, specifically in thinking about mass shootings and things like that,” said Crystal Donkor, assistant professor in the English department, before asking Schalk her quesion. “If this happened with black people, they are able minded, clearly conscious, knew what they were doing and intended to do it. Then others who commit those crimes, maybe white men, are perceived to be disabled and it’s read as in a privileged way.”