Copyright LEONARD KRIEGEL, 1969. (Reposting the text here as Kriegel has passed away and other versions of the article online are not accessible.)
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.
About six months after I arrived in the New York State Reconstruction Home in West Haverstraw in 1944, a fellow patient, who had been in the home for more than a year, casually remarked. “They got you by the hump. No matter which way you turn, they got you.” At that time, I was not yet twelve, and I took so bland an overture with all the suspicion and self-righteousness of a Boy Scout who finds himself thrust into the center of a gang war. I, for, one, knew that I had been born to be saved and I was concerned only with caking the shell of my determination to succeed. I simply was not going to be a cripple. (I wouldn’t even permit myself to use the word then, not even to think it.) I was determined to do everything I had been told I must do by doctors, nurses, physical therapists, by anybody who seemed to me an authority on “my condition.” However mysteriously, I was convinced that the task of restoring nerves to my dead legs lay in obediently listening to my superiors, and I accepted anyone’s claim to superiority on the very simple and practical basis that he could walk. If I listened, if I obeyed without questioning, I would someday once again lead “a normal life.” The phrase meant living in the way my superiors lived. I could virtually taste those words, and for years afterward I could be sent off into a redemptive beatitude if anybody told me that I was on my way toward leading “a normal life”. For the cripple, the first girl kissed, the first money earned, the first restaurant entered alone — all are visible manifestations of redemption, symbolic of “a normal life.”
In my ignorance, I did not understand that my fellow patient had simply unfolded what would ultimately seem a truism. He understood something that I could not have admitted to myself, even if I had been brave enough to recognize it. My life was not my own, and it would take immense effort for me ever to control it — even to the extent that anyone not crippled can control his life. Whoever they were, they had got me, too. And no matter which way turned, they would decide, in their collective wisdom, how my fate was to be carved out. Nor was it me as an individual cripple alone whom they had got. I was soon to discover that, in varying degrees, they had my family also. Disease is a sharing, a gray fringe of existence where man, however protesting, remains if not at his most communal, then at his most familial. For the cripple, the message of disability is invariably personal, and he carries with the physical reminder — the eyes that do not see, the limp, the rigid fear of undergoing an epileptic seizure in some strange corner of the universe, the bitter dregs of a mind that he realizes works neither wisely nor too well — the knowledge is, in some remarkably fundamental way, the creator of those who have created him. Perhaps it is not what Wordsworth in mind, but the cripple knows that the child is father to the man — and to the woman, too –, especially when that existence is conditioned by the peculiar nature of his handicap. There is no choice. “No matter which way you turn, they got you.” The cripple, at least, has the immediacy of his own struggle to overcome. His parents have little more than their obligation to his birth.
The cripple, then, is a social fugitive, a prisoner of expectations molded by a society that he makes uncomfortable by his very presence. For this reason, the most functional analogy for the life leads is to be found in the Negro. For the black man, now engaged in wresting an identity from a white society apparently intent on mangling its own, has become in America a synonym for that which insists on the capacity of its own being. At the risk demanding from Black America more than it can yet give itself, let me suggest that here we have both analogy and method. No one can teach the cripple, can serve as so authoritative a model in his quest for identity, as can the black man. I say this in spite of knowledge that Black America may simply be fed up with serving the society in any manner whatsoever. “To us,” writes Fanon, “the man who adores the Negro is as ‘sick’ as the man who abominates him.” It is not the black who must offer explanations. Far more than the cripple, he has been the victim of television interviewers, of scientific sociologists of the soul, of those seemingly innumerable bearers of “truth,” those contemporary witch doctors intent on analyzing us all to death. For the cripple, the black man is a model because he is on intimate terms with a terror that does not recognize his existence and is yet distinctly personal. He is in the process of discovering what he is, and he has known for a long time what the society conceives him to be. His very survival guarantees him the role of rebel. What he has been forced to learn is how to live on the outside looking in. Until quite recently, he was not even asked how he liked it. But this has been the essential fact of the black’s existence and it is with this very same fact that the cripple must begin, for he, too, will not be asked how he likes it. He too, must choose a self that. is not the self others insist he accept. Just as Uncle Tom, in order to placate the power of white America, learned to mask his true self until he felt himself in a position of total desperation or rising hope (or some combination of the two), so the cripple has the right, one is tempted to say the responsibility, to use every technique, every subterfuge, every mask, every emotional climate — no matter how false and seemingly put on — to alter the balance in his relation to the world around him.
His first step is obvious. He must accept the fact that his existence is a source of discomfort to others. This is not to say that he is not permitted to live with comfort and security; these, in fact, are the very gifts his society is most willing to grant him. The price he is expected to pay, however, is the same price the black man has been expected to pay, at least until very recently: he must accept his “condition,” which implies not that he accept his wound but that he never show more of that wound than society thinks proper. He is incapable of defining what selfhood is. His needs will be met, but not as he might wish to meet them.
I was thirteen when I returned to the city after almost two years of life in a rehabilitation home. A rather valiant attempt to rehabilitate me had been made there. I had been taught a number of interesting ways in which to mount a bus; I had been taught to walk on crutches with the least possible strain on my arms. I was a rather lazy patient who lived in the corridors of his own fantasy, but I cannot deny that a great deal of effort was expended upon me by a number of people who were truly interested in my welfare. Looking back, I can do little but acknowledge this and voice my gratitude.
Unfortunately, those people whose task it was to rehabilitate me had also made certain assumptions about me and the world I was to inhabit after I left the home. The assumption about me was; simple: I should be grateful for whatever existence I could scrape together. After all, there had been a time when my life itself had been forfeit and, compared to many of my peers in the ward, I was relatively functional. About the world, the assumption was equally simple — although here, perhaps, less forgivable. Society existed. Whatever it meted out to the cripple, the cripple accepted. The way of the world was not to be challenged.
I did not know what to expect when I arrived back home in the Bronx, although I sensed that my relationship to others was bound to be that of an inferior to a superior. But I did not know what form that inferiority would take. No one had bothered to teach me — no one had even bothered to mention — the position I would occupy in the world outside the ward. No one had told me the extent to which I would find myself an outsider. And no one had told me about the fear, anguish and hatred that would swirl through my soul as I was reminded every day that I was a supplicant.
The experience that scars must be lived through before it can be absorbed. Which is why therapy can only soothe and art can create. The reality remains the thing itself. One can go so far as to suggest that the very existence of language creates a barrier between the reality the cripple faces when he returns home and what has been suggested to him about that reality. Even if those responsible for rehabilitating me had been more forthright, more honest, it would have made little difference. Only the situation itself could absorb my energy and interests, not a description or an explanation of that situation. Once again, the analogy to the black condition is appropriate: the first time the word nigger is hurled at a black child by a representative of white America becomes his encounter with the thing itself, the world as it is.
In my own case, I was rather lucky. Looking back, withdrawal and/or paranoia seem to have been distinct possibilities, neither of which has been my fate. Perhaps what saved me was that I found myself too numbed to be shocked. There were two possible outs, which, in a sense, complemented each other. The first was to fantasize. Both fantasy and dreams are left to the cripple — and there is a great deal to be said for any possession of one’s own. The other was to compete in the world of the “normals.”* Obviously, such competition was bound to be false, but it served to make the fantasies somewhat more real in that it fed my illusions of potency. I recall one incident in particular, perhaps my most vivid recollection of the strange sort of humiliation I encountered. I had been arguing — forget about what — with a friend. Enraged at something he said, I challenged him to fight. He agreed, but most reluctantly. Fighting a cripple would not reflect creditably on him in the neighborhood, but, true to the obligations of adolescence, he knew that not to have accepted would be a sign of weakness and sentimentality. His compromise was to insist that we wrestle on the ground. We did, and, naturally, he wound up on top of me until his mother arrived to pull him off. Although brief, the fight itself had been highly satisfying. It enabled me to forget momentarily the fact that I was a cripple. We met if not as equals then at least as combatants on the same battleground. But then I heard his mother’s shrill scolding as she escorted him away, “You are not to fight with a cripple!” And I knew that, once again, my vulnerability had been seen by all. It had not been a fight between two adolescents. It had been, instead, a fight between a normal and a cripple. I could live with the fight. In fact, until I heard her voice, it supplied me with an illusion of potency I would have cherished. But her words were my reality.
A few months after I returned, I began going twice weekly to the Joint Disease Hospital on Madison Avenue and 124th Street. The fusion of cripple and Negro crystallized in my mind during my forays into that alien country. I like to think the Joint Disease Hospital was in Harlem by design rather than by accident. As I surveyed the dingy streets surrounding it or waited in that antiseptic lobby, I had ample opportunity to observe the life surrounding me. More than half the patients were black. And they seemed uniformly solemn, hostile, nursing a hard-core resistance to all the social workers, doctors and nurses who first-named them. While those in authority were themselves a fairly liberal mixture _________________________________________________________________
*I have taken this term from Erving Goffman’s remarkably stimulating little book, Notes In the Management of Spoiled Identity (Prentice-Hall, 1963). I would like to acknowledge also what is an obvious debt to Norman Mailer’s The White Negro, which like so much of Mailer’s work, forces the reader to confront himself. And I should also state that David Riesman was kind enough to read this essay and to ask me the kind of questions that I needed to be asked.
of black and white, the power they represented went beyond pigmentation. They were flesh-and blood embodiments of society’s virtue and charity; they were ready, willing and, to the extent they were capable, eager to cure the leper of his sores, if for no other reason than that they recognized, as we lepers ourselves recognize, that the world for which they stood as subalterns needed both the leper and his sores. What, after all, are faith, hope charity to a man who claims to be civilized, except insofar as they are demonstrable and serve to create individual virtue? One sometimes wonders whether the ultimate epitaph for Western civilization will not be, “I gave.”
On my first visit to the Joint Disease Hospital, my mother accompanied me. A new perspective thus unfolded: the victim as victimizer. I already knew what my getting polio had done to her. But as long as I was away from home, her weekly visits did little more than embarrass me. Here, however, her presence was a very tangible confirmation of my guilt. On the long ride from the northeast Bronx to Harlem, she had been extremely nervous. When we arrived at the hospital’s outpatient clinic, she seated herself — before the social worker assigned to her — with the particular aggressive hesitancy so characteristic of the eastern European immigrant. She had learned that one dealt with those in power with respect, humility and firmness. After the interview we seated ourselves as conspicuously as possible in the front row of the waiting room. All around us, people were waiting to be called into the inner sanctum, most of them staring glumly at the yellow curtains that guarded each cubicle like a mask for pain. My mother grew increasingly uncomfortable. To be the mother of a cripple, I began to understand, was to be the victim of something one simply could not understand. While I had to wrestle with my knowledge that those whose legs functioned were my superiors, she had to wrestle with her suspicion that she had somehow done something to create her fate. Neither God nor his justice are blind. One received in life what one deserved.
The hospital, the waiting in the lobby, the sullen faces around us, the forbidding presence of doctors and nurses gloved by a silence broken only by their occasional whispers to one another — all depicted a world she was henceforth to inhabit. I myself was relatively at ease. This was more or less the way things had been for two years. For my mother, it was original, a slow-motion film of what lay in wait for her, chipping into whatever sense of security she had been able to muster before we left the apartment. To her credit, she refused to panic. When my name was finally called by the receptionist, she entered the inner sanctum and answered questions with honesty and even with pride in her capacity to endure the intimate disclosure of her suffering. Then a doctor examined me, murmured something about “doing our best,” and the ordeal was over. My mother glowed. It was as if she had come through some terrible ordeal, marked but not scarred.
My mother did not need Harem as I did. She knew enough about endurance; that Faulknerian virtue so apparent in those brittle streets. She came through what was, for her, an ordeal and a humiliation, and she came through far more intact than I would come through. She possessed the endurance of her instincts. And she herself was as alien to this America as anyone walking the streets of Harlem, for the kind of endurance I am speaking about here is as much a matter of geography as it is of culture.
Only by existing does the black man remain black and the cripple remain a cripple. A singular, most unfunny lesson. But the cripple could profit from it. The condition of the Negro is imposed from outside. Obviously this is not altogether true of the cripple. But while his physical condition is not imposed from outside, the way in which he exists in the world is. His relationship to the community is, by and large, dependent upon the special sufferance the community accords him. And whether he wishes to or not, the cripple must view himself as part of an undefined community within the larger community. But there is no sense of shared relationships or pride. Cripples do not refer to each other “soul brothers.” And regardless of how much he may desire to participate in the larger community, the cripple discovers that he has been offered a particular role that society expects him to play. He is expected to accede to that role’s demands. And just as it is considered perfectly legitimate to violate a black man’s privacy to bolster assumptions that the nonblack world makes, so it is perfectly legitimate to question the cripple about virtually any aspect of his private life. The normal possesses the right to his voyeurism without any obligation to involve himself with its object. He wants the picture drawn for him at the very moment that he refuses to recognize that the subject of his picture is, like him, a human being. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” asks Shylock of his persecutors. The cripple’s paraphrase might well be, “If you wish to see my wound, can you deny me the right to show you my self?” But voyeurism is the normal’s form of non-involvement. The experience of being the recipient of unasked-for attention is as common to cripples as it is to blacks. Each is asked to show those aspects of his “condition” that will reinforce the normal’s assumptions about what the cripple (or black) feels like, what he wants, and what he is.
I can remember my neighbors, on my return home, praying for me, inquiring about my health, quoting for my benefit the words of Christ, St. Francis, Akiba and F. D. R.* I can remember their lecturing me, advising me, escorting me. Drunks voluntarily shared their wisdom with me. Almost everyone did things for me — except, of course, to see me. For to have seen me would have entailed recognizing my existence as an individual me, that kind have of personal encounter that results in a stripping away of stereotype and symbol and a willingness to accept the humanity of the other, at whatever personal cost.
One can object that this view simply distorts the problem of the cripple. It is not the black man and the cripple alone who suffer from invisibility in America. The proliferation of books on alienation and anxiety, the increasing sense of disaffiliation from which our younger people suffer, the seemingly endless number of fads, pseudo religions, life sciences, and spiritual hobbyhorses that clutter the landscape of life in these United States all testify to this. Ultimately, such an objection contains great validity. But one must first see it within the particular situation in which
*Roosevelt’s ability to “beat” polio was for me, as well as for most of the boys in ward with me, what Kenneth Burke speaks of as a ” symbolic action.” Burke, of course. is dealing with literary criticism and his categories are derived from the study of literature and are all verbal. But an icon living within the boundaries of one’s memory may serve a similar function to that which Burke had in mind.
the cripple exists: the possibilities affording relief to others are not usually open to the cripple. There is no way, of course, to define degrees of alienation and invisibility with any sense of accuracy. But one can suggest that if most persons are only half-visible, then the cripple, like the black man until recently, is wholly invisible. Stereotypes persist long after reality fades away; for us, Uncle Tom still prays on bent knees while Tiny Tim hobbles through the world on huge gushes of sentiment and love. But let us see the world as it is, for the world itself has perfected the ability to see what it wishes to see and only what it wishes to see. Those stolid burghers who lived only a few miles from the death camps in Germany possessed a vague idea of what was taking place within those camps, but they never permitted the vagueness to make itself concrete, to push itself forward onto the individual consciousness.
The community, then, makes certain assumptions about the cripple. Whether verifiable or not, it behaves on the basis of those assumptions. The cripple is judged (as are the members of his family in terms of their relation to him), but the judgments are rendered by those for whom neither the cripple nor his family possess any meaningful reality. His “condition” is an abstraction; he himself is not quite real. Who is going to recognize me? asks the cripple. But society has already called into question the very existence of that me for it refuses to look at that which makes it uncomfortable. And so it leaves the cripple, doubting his potency, not quite ready to face his primary obligation — to extend understanding to himself, to accept the fact that his problems exist now, here, in this world, that they are problems for which relief must be sought, and that his “condition” is arbitrary but not absolute. Choices, as well as obligations, exist within the boundaries of his possibilities.
To strike out on his own in the face of a society whose smugness seems, at times, conspiratorial is difficult. As an attitude, smugness goes beyond indifference. And it is far more harmful. Smugness is the asset of the untouched, the virtue of the oblivious, and the badge of the unthreatened. It is the denial of the existence of that which threatens one’s comfort, the right to judge whatever and whenever the smug believe judgment is called for. Smugness is the constant reminder of the line that exists between those who have not been touched by the world’s terror and those who have. Smugness is a denial of the motion of the universe, an assumption that time stands still and that mortality itself can be conquered. The cripple knows better; for him, it is time an motion together that form the dialectic of rage.
What the cripple must face is being pigeonholed by the smug. Once his behavior is assumed from the fact that he is a cripple, it doesn’t matter whether he is viewed as holy or damned. Either assumption is made at the expense of his individuality, his ability to say “I.” He is expected to behave in such-and-such a way; he is expected to react in the following manner to the following stimulus. And since that which expects such behavior is that which provides the stimulus, his behavior is all too often Pavlovian. He reacts as he is expected to react because he does not really accept the idea that he can react in any other way. Once he accepts, however unconsciously, the images of self that his society presents him, then the guidelines for his behavior are clear-cut and consistent.
This is the black man’s conflict, too. And it is exactly here that black militancy has confronted the enmity of white society. White America is probably willing to absorb the black American; what it may not be willing to do is to permit the black American to absorb himself. Negro anxiety, rage and anger are seen only as threats to the primacy of white America when they probably should be seen as the black man’s effort to rid himself of all sorts of imposed definitions of his proper social “role.” The black view must be total. Given the experience of having been born black in a white world, it is difficult for the black man to think about his life in terms other than color or race. The totality of his experience gives him no edge. And what he witnesses is forced into the mold of what he has known. I once received an essay from a black student describing Canova’s Perseus Holding the Head of Medusa in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a depiction of “the temporary black crisis.” When I questioned what she had seen, I discovered that most of the other black students in the class believed that one had the right, perhaps even the obligation, to see that statue and everything else in terms of “the black crisis.”
If one calls this confusion, it is a confusion that the cripple shares. For one thing, the cripple is not sure of just who is and who isn’t his enemy; for another, he must distrust the mask of language just as the black man does; for a third, he cannot help but see the world itself as the source of his humiliation. He is “different” at the very moment he desires to be created in another’s image. And he must feel shame at the expression of such a desire. If anything, his situation is even more difficult than the black’s, at least as far as his ability to find relief is concerned. If the black man’s masculinity is mangled, he can still assert it in certain ways. Black actors assuage his hunger for a heroic identity; black athletes help him forget, however temporarily, the mutilation of his being; and a worldwide renascent political movement, convinced that it represents the wave of the future, teaches him that his blackness — the very aspect of his existence that he has been taught to despise — is “beautiful” and is to become the foundation of the new life he will create for himself.
Whether this assessment of his situation is accurate is of no immediate concern, for what we are interested in is its validity as an analogy for the life of the cripple. Black Americans now believe that they possess choices and that they need not live as victims. They are now engaged in the struggle to force society to accept, or at the least to accommodate itself to, the black conception of how blacks are to live. The cripple’s situation is more difficult. If it exists at all, his sense of community with his fellow sufferers is based upon shame rather than pride. Nor is there any political or social movement that will supply him with a sense of solidarity. If anything it is probably more difficult for the cripple to relate to “his own” than to the normals. Louis Battye, an English novelist born with muscular dystrophy, has graphically expressed how the cripple sees himself not merely as the symbol of what society thinks he is but of what he actually is.
Somewhere deep inside us is the almost unbearable knowledge that the way the able-bodied world regards us is as much as we have the right expect. We are not full members of that world, and the vast majority of us can never hope to be. If we think otherwise we are deluding ourselves. Like children and the insane, we inhabit a special sub-world, a world with its own unique set of referents.
Battye also speaks of the cripple’s “irrelevance to the real business of living.” His observations are acute and courageous. One suspects that most cripples feel this about themselves, although few have the courage to admit it. A cripple must see himself as an anachronism, for virtually everything his culture offers him is designed to reinforce his sense of inferiority, to point out to him that he is tolerated in spite of his stigma and that he had best keep his distance if he wishes society’s approval. But Tiny Tim is, with whatever modern variations, still his image. He may insist that Tiny Tim is not his true self. But it frames society’s picture of him. It is still the model for his behavior.
Self-hatred, then, must be the legacy he derives from his consciousness of what society thinks of him. With what else can he confront a society that values physical strength and physical beauty? ( Regardless of how bizarre that sense of beauty may times seem, it remains outside the cripple’s range of possibilities. ) If growing old is a threat to modern Americans, how much greater a threat is physical deformity or mental retardation?
And what are the cripple’s options? Most of the options traditionally available to the “gifted” or “exceptional” Negro are not available to him, since his restrictions are almost invariably functional and rather severely limit the territory he can stake out as his own. He cannot become a movie idol; he cannot become an athlete; he cannot even become a soldier and risk his life in defense of that which has rejected him. His choices are simply far more limited than are the choices of a black man.
But what he can do is to learn one of the fundamental lessons of American Negro history, a lesson that probably accounts for the growing tension between white and black: he can create his individual presence out of the very experience of his rejection. The black man in America is an obvious model for him, not because of any inherent Faulknerian virtue but because he has spent three hundred and fifty years learning how to deal with his tormentors. Without romanticizing him, we recognize that he has earned his status. It has made him, at one and the same time, both tougher and more paranoid than white America. And a certain amount of toughness as well, perhaps, as a certain amount of paranoia might serve to change the cripple’s own conception of self. There is no formula that can force Tiny Tim to stand on his own two crutches. But the cripple can certainly make a start by refusing the invisibility thrust over him by the culture. He can insist on being seen.
In the folklore of white America, Harlem has long been considered exotic as well as dangerous territory. Perhaps it is both exotic and dangerous. But from 1946 to 1951, the years during which I was an outpatient at the Joint Disease Hospital, it was one of the more comfortable places in New York for me. I do not mean to voice that old ploy about those who themselves suffer being more sympathetic, more receptive to the pain of others ( although there is probably a certain limited truth here, too ). All I mean is that in Harlem I first became conscious of how I could outmanipulate that in society which was trying to categorize me. It is probably a slum child’s earliest lesson, one that he learns even before he sets foot in a school, for it is a lesson that carries with it the structure of his survival. Normals begin to appear not as particularly charitable human beings but rather as individuals able to band together for purposes of mutual self-interest. They possess their environment, and the environment itself ( which for the black child and for the cripple is part of the enemy’s world ) is for them a visible symbol of their success.
The normals are a tangible presence in Harlem, or at least they were during my tenure as an outpatient at the Joint Disease Hospital. The normals are they, the people in authority — police for the black child, nurses, doctors and social workers for me. It was in this confrontation with the normals that I first noticed what is now called the Negro’s “marginality” to the kind of existence the rest of America is supposed to lead. On the short strolls I took on my crutches through the streets surrounding the hospital, the single fact I constantly confronted was the way in which the non-Harlem world imposed its presence on the community. Individuals walking the streets simply froze in its presence. One was always aware of a potential breaking out, an explosion of amassed raw frustration and distorted energy. I can remember stiffening with tension when a patrol car cruised past. Now it must be remembered that I was white, that I was an adolescent, that I moved with great difficulty on braces and crutches, and that I was probably the last person in Harlem who had anything to fear from the police. But none of this changed the fact that in Harlem a patrol car was simply the most decisive presence of the normals one could conceive of — and whether it was because I felt comfortable in those streets or because the air smelled differently or because the tension that seemed to surround me was part of the very manner, the very life, of the community, I remember stiffening with fear and guilt and anxiety. Had I been a black adolescent with legs that functioned, I probably would have run, assuming my guilt as a corollary of my birth. Just as such a boy was a victim, so I knew that I was already a victim: the truth was that I was already on short-term loan to the needs of the outside world. I could exist as an individual only insofar as I could satisfy those needs. At least, this is what I had absorbed. For anything else, I would have to struggle. And at that time ( I was not yet sixteen ), I was not only not smart enough to resist but I still had fantasies of leaving the world of the cripple. That, too, was part of the legacy. To choose hope rather than despair is natural enough. But it had been five years since the embrace of my virus and I still could not bring myself to admit that my condition was permanent.
The cripple’s struggle to call himself I, which is, I take it, what we mean by a struggle for identity, is always with him. He can be challenged in his illusions of sufficiency by the most haphazard event. I used to drop into a drugstore across the street from the Joint Disease Hospital while I waited for the car that was to take me back to the Bronx. It was the kind of drugstore one still saw before 1960. Despite its overstuffed dinginess, perhaps even because of it, the drugstore seemed portentously professional. Somehow, its proximity to the hospital gave it a certain dignity. The man who ran its operations was short and heavy, courteous and solicitous. I remember that his hair was thinning and that he smoked cigarettes in a manner that made smoking itself seem an act of defiance. He would occasionally join me as I sat as the counter drinking coffee and, more often than not he would inform me of what the Negro wanted. I have an image of him, smoke blowing through flared nostrils, staring at the door as he spoke. At such times, he seemed oblivious to the presence of black customers and the black counterman alike. “They want to be accepted. They would like the white man to give them a chance to show what they can do.” I had heard the words for years and I could even nod in rhythmical agreement. And then one day he added, in a voice as casual and well-intentioned as when he told me what they wanted, “Why don’t you plan to get yourselves a nice store? Like a greeting card store. Or something like that. Where you don’t have to work so hard but you could still earn your own living. That’s what you should do.”
And so I learned that I existed for him as an abstraction, that he saw through me as if I, too, were smoke he was blowing through his nostrils. The cripple had been linked to the Negro. A new they had been born. As a man of the world, who did not need to move beyond abstraction, he assumed that he had every right in the world to decide what the cripple or the Negro wanted. He knew what I “should do” because he possessed two good legs and I didn’t. Not being a cripple makes one an expert on the cripple, just as not being black makes one an expert on the Negro. It was another example of the normal deciding how that which dared not to be normal should live.
In his conclusion to Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon discovers that the final myth he must destroy is the myth of a “black world,” for such a myth is ultimately dependent upon an equally inhuman a “white world.” “There are,” Fanon insists, “in every part of the world men who search.” This seems to me one of the few workable reasons one can accept, despite the fact that I know that, for the cripple even the act of surrendering himself to the ranks of those who search is enveloped by potential disaster. The cripple must recognize this and he must face it. For no matter how limited his functioning in the society of normals may be, there are certain guidelines that he is offered. Once he has accepted being pigeonholed by society, he finds that he is safe as long as he is willing to live within the boundaries of his categorization. To break out of its confines calls for an act of will of which he may already be incapable. Should he choose to resist, he will probably discover that he has inflamed those who see themselves as kind and tolerant. My inability to tell that man to mind his own business was an act of spiritual acquiescence. Had I told him where to get off, I would have undoubtedly been guilty of an unpardonable sin in his eyes. But I would have moved an inch forward toward personal emancipation. Cripples, though, simply did not address normals in such a way. Tiny Tim was still my image of the cripple. And Tiny Tim had always been grateful for the attention conferred upon him by his betters — any kind of attention. My inability to defy that man was more than a reflection of my weakness: it was also the embodiment of his success, the proof of the legitimacy of his assumption. On my next visit to the Joint Disease Hospital, I dropped in once again for another cup of coffee and another quick chat.
And so the task of the cripple is to re-create a self, or rather to create a true self, one dependent upon neither fantasy nor false objectivity. To define one’s own limitations is as close as one can come to meaningful independence. Not to serve is an act of courage in this world, but if it leaves one merely with the desire for defiance then it ultimately succumbs to a different form of madness. The black man who rejects “white culture” must inevitably reject his own humanity, for if all he can see in Bach or Einstein is skin color then he has become what his tormentors have made of him. The only true union remains with those “who search.” For the cripple, too, there are no others. To embrace one’s braces and crutches would be an act of the grotesque; but to permit one’s humanity to be defined by others because of those braces crutches is even more grotesque. Even in Dachau and Buchenwald, the human existed. It was left to the searchers to find it.