Buried Alive not Dead

root - Posted on 01 January 2000

by Leroy Moore

The title of this essay, "Buried Alive not Dead," is a metaphor for the unspoken and unwritten connection between Black history and disability.
In this essay I will concentrate on two major historical events that shaped the future of African Americans: the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and slavery. So far my research into these two periods reveals a sharp connection that links early African American history to disability. You will see that although disability has been intertwined with African American history, it has been overlooked, put on the back burner for the sake of "bigger issues." This history has been buried alive, but the history and contribution of Black disabled people is not dead.

The Bible

In the Old Testament disability was seen as a sin, or a punishment from God. Sometimes disability was seen as being possessed by evil. In the New Testament Jesus healed the lame, sick, blind and crippled, or in today's terminology, ìpersons with disabilities.î

But also in the Old Testament we find a prophet of God who performed some amazing feats without changing his physical stand. This prophet comes up again and again throughout the history of Black Americans, from African slaves to Martin Luther King. I'm talking about Moses in Exodus.

In Exodus, Moses was chosen by God to lead the Israelite slaves out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom in Israel. When God came to Moses and gave him this dangerous assignment, Moses doubted his own abilities to lead because he was slow of tongue. Another way to phrase this is to say Moses had a speech impediment.

But God didn't cure Moses' "speech disability" (as Jesus did to his followers in the New Testament). God gave Moses an accommodation, his brother Aaron, to speak for Moses. Moses and Aaron were a team together. Moses had the leadership skills and Aaron provided the voice.

The connection between Moses and African slaves was the strong hold of religion in the Black community. The Black church expressed a rich spirituality that sustained slaves and freed people through hard times. Although White masters taught their slaves to be Christians by preaching the New Testament, slaves were interested in the Old Testament because it spoke of their lives, and gave them hope of a new and better world. Moses was a hero to African American slaves, inspiring them to sing, "Go Down Moses."

Slavery & Disability

Although slaves looked to Moses as a role model, Moses' speech disability did not translate into positive attitudes toward disability at that time. We can say that Moses' disability did not affect his ability to perform physical labor, so it was placed in the background of his life. In slavery times, the main link to being a successful slave was the ability to perform physical, manual work on the plantations.

Many Africans did not survive the long boat ride to America because of the inhumane, abusive conditions of the slave ships. The slaves who were sick and physically disabled from the conditions of the boat ride and the physical torment from the White settlers were tossed overboard and left to drown. Is this where my history stops, at the bottom of the sea?

The harsh treatment of slaves produced a high rate of physical and mental disabilities. One historian linked mental illness and insanity among slaves to the separation of families. In 1863 a slave woman went insane because her sons were sold and sent to the trader's jail.

Disability had to be hidden away for a slave to stay alive. African slaves who were born physically disabled were put to death by their White masters or even their own parents because these disabilities made them useless on the plantations. When a slave woman gave birth, the first thing she was concerned about was the infant's physical condition. As time went by, the mother forced the baby to stand and walk.

I'm reminded of a short story titled 'Black Diamond' by Afi Tiomble A. Kambon. The story starts out in a small village in Africa and talks about the White invaders who brought the African villagers to the New World. The story concentrates on a slave woman who gave birth to a lovely girl who sparkled like a diamond. The only problem was the baby girl's legs were thin, and she was unable to stand and walk. At the end of 'Black Diamond,' the master dropped, kicked and stomped the baby until it was dead.

Pages 133 and 136 of American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a
Thousand Witness describe the slaves' masters' views on disability as follows:

Old Slaves:
They're seen as a tax to the Master, it would be in the best interest to shorten their days.

The Incurably Diseased Maimed:
It would be cheaper for Masters to buy poison than medicine.

The Blind, Lunatics and Idiots:
They're seen as a tax to the Master, it would be in the best interest to shorten their days.

The Deaf, Dumb and Person Greatly Deformed:
Such might or might not be serviceable to the Master, many of them would be a burden and many men throw their burden away.

Feeble Infants:
Would require much nursing, the time, trouble and expense necessary to raise them would generally cost more than they would be worth as working animals.

This document goes on to give estimattions of 1600 slaves who were deaf and dumb, and 1300 blind slaves, in 1830. The directors of the American Asylum produced these numbers for the Deaf and Dumb of Hartford, CT.

On many plantations there were hospitals for sick slaves, but these were not healing places. Slaves in these hospitals had to work while recovering. In a personal narrative, Mr. George A. Avery describes the treatment of sick slaves as "revolting!" The same book reads, "If no cure was found for the sick slave then death was ordered with no compensation to be made, but if cured a bonus up to $300.00 was to be given" (336). Nine times out of ten, when a slave was really, really sick, he was left in an empty room alone for days or even months to die.

All disabled slaves were not killed! Many slaves lived and worked on American plantations with their physical and mental disabilities by making adaptive equipment to make them seem 'normal'. Mentally disabled slaves leaned on the slave community to hide their illnesses. These slaves were watched closely by their Masters to make sure they were not dangerous to themselves and others.

The bodies of the slaves were on display for auction, and slaves and their Masters tried to hide flaws, weaknesses and disabilities. Still, slaves' masters continued to use harsh torment and physical abuse, causing physical and mental disabilities.

Harriet Tubman, who led the famous Underground Railroad, was beaten so badly that she experienced black outs and seizures. Ms. Tubman's health made it difficult for her Master to find her a new Master. In 1857 Harriet
Tubman brought her parents to freedom. Her parents were too feeble to walk, so she hired a wagon to accommodate them. In her journey to lead slaves to freedom, Ms. Tubman would leave her company hidden in the woods while she herself went into towns in search of information. After freeing slaves, Ms. Tubman watched over their welfare, collected clothes, and organized the free slaves into societies. She also raised funds to build a house for her parents.

During her days of the Underground Railroad, one of Ms. Tubman's disguises was to look so stupid that nobody would suspect her of knowing enough to be dangerous! She, like Moses, led slaves to freedom, and her disability, like Moses', was and is played down or looked upon as a pity in the history of Black Americans.

As you can see, disability was a part of slavery. Although disability among slaves often equaled death, many disabled slaves contributed on the plantations, helped free other slaves, invented adoptive equipment and gave encouragement to the slaves' population.

After the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves went to war to fight for their freedom. What happened to the soldiers who returned home disabled? What happened to disabled slaves after slavery? Did Black disabled free people enjoy the benefits of the Black Reconstruction? What happened in the sixties to Black disabled people?

The two histories, African American history and Disability history, do mention Black disabled people and their contribution, but it is buried alive. The connection between African American history and Disability history needs more attention and research in a positive light.


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