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"Uncle Tom And Tiny Tim: Some Reflections On The Cripple As Negro"

Creator: Leonard Kriegel (author)
Date: 1969
Publication: The American Scholar
Publisher: United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa
Source: Available at selected libraries

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"I find myself suddenly in the world and I recognize that I have one right alone: that of demanding human behavior from the other." -- Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks


It was Nietzsche who reminded the nineteenth century that man can only define himself when he recognizes his true relation both to the self and to the other. When man accepts the umbilical cord tying him to society, he does so with the knowledge that he must eventually destroy it if only to re-tie it more securely. Nietzsche was not alone. The men who wrote the Old and New Testaments, the Greek poets, indeed, almost all the saints and apocalyptic madmen who embroider the history of Western civilization like so many flares in our darkness -- for them, as for Freud, recognition of self is the first step toward recognition of the other. "I attack only those things against which I find no allies, against which I stand alone," Nietzsche wrote. If such sentiments have the uncomfortable ring of a rhetoric that might be better forgotten today, this is only because the particular kind of inhumanity to which Nietzsche called attention has become so much greater, so much more dense and impenetrable, than it was in his time.


What Nietzsche wrote is especially applicable to the cripple, and to those men and women who inhabit, however partially, the cripple's world. It is noteworthy that, at a time when in virtually every corner of the globe those who have been invisible to themselves and to those they once conceived of as masters now stridently demand the right to define meaning and behavior in their own terms, the cripple is still asked to accept definitions of what he is, and of what he should be, imposed on him from outside his experience. In the United States alone, spokesmen for the Negro, the Puerto Rican, the Mexican, the Indian have embarked upon an encounter with a society that they believe has enriched itself at their expense, that has categorized them by cataloguing their needs and desires, their hopes and fears, their anguish and courage, even their cowardice. What all such encounters share is the challenge they offer to the very limited idea of humanity that the oppressor society grants its victims. And, however insufficiently, the society does respond in its ability to see its victims anew. Late-night television interviewers vie with one another in the effort to titillate their viewers with "militant" after "militant" who rhetorically massages whatever guilt resides in the collective consciousness of white America with threats to burn Whitey's cities to the ground. It is a game that threatens to erupt into an industry, and the nation eagerly watches while David Susskind battles Allen Burke for the privilege of leading nightly sessions of ritual flagellation -- all of them no doubt, designed to enrich the national psyche.


The cripple is conspicuous by his absence from such programs. And the reason for that absence is not difficult to discover. The cripple is simply not attractive enough, either in his physical presence, which is embarrassing to host and viewers, or in his rhetoric, which simply cannot afford the bombastic luxuriance characteristic of confessional militancy. If a person who has had polio, for example, were to threaten to burn cities to the ground unless the society recognized his needs, he would simply make of himself an object of laughter and ridicule. The very paraphernalia of his existence, his braces and crutches, make such a threat patently ridiculous. Aware of his own helplessness, he cannot help but be aware, too, that whatever limited human dimensions he has been offered are themselves the product of society's largesse. Quite simply, he can take it or leave it. He does not even possess the sense of being actively hated or feared by society, for society is merely made somewhat uncomfortable by his presence. It treats him as if he were an errant, rather ugly, little schoolboy. The homosexual on public display titillates, the gangster fascinates, the addict touches -- all play upon a nation's voyeuristic instincts. The cripple simply embarrasses. Society can see little reason for recognizing his existence at all.


And yet, he asks, why should he apologize? My crutches are as visible as a black man's skin, and they form a significant element, probably the most significant element, in the way in which I measure myself against the demands of the world. And the world itself serves as witness to my sufferance. A few years ago, the mayor of New York decided to "crack down" on diplomats, doctors and cripples who possessed what he described as "special parking privileges." I single Mr. Lindsay out here because he is the very same mayor who has acted with a certain degree of sensitivity and courage when dealing with the problems of blacks in the ghettos. He soon rescinded the order preventing cripples from using their parking permits, but one notes with interest his apparent inability to conceive of what such an order would inevitably do. Cripples were instructed to drive to the police station nearest their place of work, leave their cars, and wait until a police vehicle could drive them to their destination. One simply does not have to be Freud to understand that a physical handicap carries with it certain decisive psychological ramifications, chief among them the anxiety-provoking question of whether or not one can make it -- economically, socially and sexually -- on one's own. Forcing a man who has great difficulty in walking to surrender his car, the source of his mobility, is comparable to calling a black man "boy" in a crowd of white onlookers. The mayor succeeded only in reminding me, and the thousands of other cripples who live in New York, that my fate was in his hands and that he controlled my destiny to an extent I did not wish to believe. He brought me once again face-to-face with what Fanon means when he writes, "Fervor is the weapon of choice of the impotent." Fanon, of course, was writing about being black in a psychologically white world, but the analogy is neither farfetched nor unusual. Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim are brothers under the skin.

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