The Katherine Jackson Paradigm, as I like to call it, is named after the Katherine Jackson. The one who raised all those Jackson babies, notably Michael and Janet. The one who after a childhood marked by polio had and has a limp. While The Katherine Jackson Paradigm is not modeled off of her actual life (I hope), it is a comment on her image in popular imagination: that gimpy, pretty young woman who settles for Joe Jackson’s abuse, foolery, and fuckery because hey, she’s got a limp! And sometimes even a cane! Who’s gunna wanna get with that, amirite?
Oh dear (non-crippled) reader, I can see your sweet little head shaking from side to side with concern because you cannot possibly imagine who would say such a thing about someone with a physical disability. I mean, all your friends would be able to look past someone’s body, and date the person. And you wouldn’t even notice the cane after a while, or the limp. Or at least you would get used to it and forget. Because you are a good person, and your friends are good people, not like Joe Jackson at all.
Zoom in on my empty heartspace. I have been diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erethematosus for years now, and I almost don’t always hate my body. Sure, it does lots of kooky stuff like fall over without warning and threaten me with fainting. Sure, I have to sleep for eleven hours in order to be remotely productive. Sometimes all of my daily allotment of energy goes to washing the back of my neck in the shower or cooking for myself, but at least after four years of forced medication I can do those things again. My friends no longer have to pull double duty as cooking and care assistants (buttoning my buttons, combing my hair, filling my pots with water, etc.) which means that neither will my beautiful, delightful, intelligent partner who does not exist.
I have not had a serious or long-term relationship since I was diagnosed with SLE and stigma about the dateability of sick cripples is a huge reason why. Before I was diagnosed, I was just sick. I have always been very sick and very seriously allergic to the sun. I didn’t know this fact until I got a definitive diagnosis, and it caused lots of problems with partners who felt like I should do able bodied things that I just couldn’t do, and then proceeded to abuse and humiliate me.
My inability to perform certain sexual positions, constant sleepiness, and the fact that I live in constant pain became the subject of jokes and taunts which I couldn’t take seriously because I didn’t have a medical diagnosis. So, to able bodied folks, I was not sick (even though I was sick). When I told my last pre-diagnosis partner that I thought I had SLE, she said that I was too pretty for that to be true. That I was probably overreacting. Several years later, I informed her that I did have SLE and she was silent. I knew something irreconcilable had gone on in her mind. Something about me had changed for her.
Dating someone with a sickness onto death (which for Black people SLE frequently is) (don’t come for me on this one) (fine: J Dilla for example) is something that people just don’t want to do. For a femme to have a life-changing sickness onto death is even worse the paradigm goes, because there are so many things associated with femininity that I cannot and won’t ever do. Bearing a child would likely kill me or the baby. I cannot walk in heels without excruciating pain. I fall asleep at inopportune times. I’ve been on low dose chemo for years and have lost all of my curves. I am the wrong type of femininity for dating and love, as my life has shown me time and again.
Last month, I saw Tyler Perry’s movie Temptation. [Spoiler alert.] The film, which stars Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Brandi Norwood, and Robbie Jones is on the surface a cautionary tale about stepping out on your partner and champions “good Christian” morals. Unfortunately, its effect is to show one more example of how Hollywood capitalizes on the unlovability of permanently sick people. Both Judith (Smollett-Bell) and Melinda (Norwood) contract HIV from Harley (Jones), a millionaire playboy who loves to beat on women and have rapey, condom-free, sex.
Although both women are alive at the end of the movie, they never go on with their lives. They are aged prematurely with make-up and bad wigs, which is supposed to signify the fact that they are no longer viable partners, and should not be looked upon with hot lusty desire. When asked if they want to date or start families of their own, they humbly say no and look sad. We all know what is implied by these scenes: sick people are essentially dead; they want to be left alone to die.
SLE and HIV are both diseases that disproportionately kill Black women. Disabled people are the largest and poorest minority group. Popular media examples of crippled Black femininities sanction chronic lovelessness by showing no other option. They help spread the misinformation that keeps disabled people oppressed and isolated. Thus, it is imperative that we as a community reevaluate our biases towards the disabled and question the perpetuation of stereotypes that hinge upon the idea that crippled femininities don’t want or need romantic love. Love is an essential part of building community and Black cripples are worth loving. Today, I love myself by refusing The Katherine Jackson Paradigm and finding the beauty in my sleepy, painful, crippled body.
– Cyrée Jarelle Johnson
Cyrée Jarelle Johnson is a Black Femme dyke writer, scholar, zinester, and poet. Cyrée Jarelle is committed to relocating Femme culture from margin to center using writing, non-formal education and communal publication. Ze remains a crippled Jersey Grrl abroad; in hir swollen feet ze is a wanderer, but hir heart is in the foodcourt at the Woodbridge Mall.