Differently Abled: Africanisms, Disability, and Power in the Age of Transatlantic Slavery

  • Jenifer L. BarclayEmail author
Part of the Bioarchaeology and Social Theory book series (BST)


Indigenous religious beliefs and traditional cultural practices among the people of many West African ethnic groups suggest a precolonial logic that cast some individuals considered “disabled” by contemporary Western standards as, instead, uniquely empowered. These more positive interpretations of embodied forms of human difference resounded in the social ethos, healing practices, and folklore of enslaved peoples throughout the New World, underscoring a facet of African cultural retentions —perceptions of the body and mind in relation to structures of power—that scholars have long overlooked. By centering on precolonial West African views of those with “differently abled” bodyminds and how they echoed in some New World slave societies, this chapter calls attention to the culturally and historically contingent nature of hegemonic Eurocentric categories like “disability” and challenges ahistorical assumptions that these conditions always signaled weakness and social inferiority.


Critical disability studies Cultural retentions Disability and coloniality Indigenous knowledge 



The author would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers who provided incredibly helpful feedback and suggestions that strengthened this chapter in important ways. She would also like to express her deep gratitude to Nwando Achebe and Pero Dagbovie for their support, encouragement, and advice. Additionally, a generous predoctoral fellowship at the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute and postdoctoral fellowship in African American Studies at Case Western Reserve University directed by Rhonda Williams allowed me to complete the initial research on this project and develop many of these ideas. I remain deeply grateful for both of these opportunities.


  1. Ablon, J. (1984). Little people in America: The social dimension of dwarfism. New York: Praeger Publishers.Google Scholar
  2. Abosi, A., & Koay, T. L. (2008). Attaining development goals of children with disabilities: Implications for inclusive education. International Journal of Special Education, 23(3), 1–10.Google Scholar
  3. Abrahams, R. (1985). African American folktales: Stories from black traditions in the New World. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  4. Achebe, C. (1986). The world of the Ògbánge. Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension.Google Scholar
  5. Achebe, N. (2005). Farmers, traders, warriors and kings: Female power and authority in Northern Igboland, 1900–1960. Portsmouth, NH: Hinemann.Google Scholar
  6. Adelson, B. (2005). The lives of dwarfs: Their journey from public curiosity toward social liberation. New Brunswick: Rutgers.Google Scholar
  7. Akyeampong, E., & Obeng, P. (2005). Spirituality, gender and power in Asante history. In O. Oyěwùmí (Ed.), African Gender Studies: A Reader (pp. 23–48). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  8. Anderson, J. (2002). Conjure in African American society. Ph.D. Diss., University of Florida.Google Scholar
  9. Bannerman-Richter, G. (1987). The mysterious little people. Sacramento, CA: Gabari Publishing.Google Scholar
  10. Barclay, J. (2014a). The greatest degree of perfection: Disability and the construction of race in American slave law. South Carolina Review, 46(2), 27–43.Google Scholar
  11. Barclay, J. (2014b). Mothering the “useless”: Black motherhood, disability, and slavery. Women, Gender, and Families of Color, 2(2), 115–140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Barker, C., & Murray, S. (2010). Disabling postcolonialism: Global disability cultures and democratic criticism. Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, 4(3), 219–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Battles, H. (2011). Toward engagement: Exploring the prospects for an integrated anthropology of disability. vis-à-vis: Explorations in anthropology, 11(1), 107–124.Google Scholar
  14. Bauman, H., & Murray, J. (2014). Deaf gain: Raising the stakes for human diversity. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  15. Berlin, I. (1996). From Creole to African: Atlantic Creoles and the origins of African-American society in mainland North America. The William and Mary Quarterly, 53(2), 251–288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Blassingame, J. (1979). The slave community: Plantation life in the antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Boster, D. (2013). African American slavery and disability: Bodies, property, and power in the antebellum South, 1800–1860. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  18. Brown, W. W. (1880). My Southern home: The South and its people. Boston: A.G. Brown and Company Publishers.Google Scholar
  19. Burch, S., & Joyner, H. (2007). Unspeakable: The story of Junius Wilson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Burch, S., & Rembis, M. (2014). Disability histories. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  21. Burck, D. (1999). Incorporation of knowledge of social and cultural factors in the practice of rehabilitation projects. In B. Holzer, A. Vreede, & G. Weigt (Eds.), Disability in different cultures (pp. 199–207). Frensdorf, Germany: Digital PS Druck.Google Scholar
  22. Desta, D. (1995). Needs and provisions in the area of special education: The case of Ethiopia. Report on the 2nd South-South-North Workshop. Kampala, Uganda.Google Scholar
  23. Devlieger, P. (1995). Why disabled? The cultural understanding of physical disability in an African society. In B. Ingstad & S. Whyte (Eds.), Disability and culture (pp. 94–106). Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  24. Devlieger, P. (2000). The logic of killing disabled children: Infanticide, Songye cosmology, and the colonizer. In J. Hubert (Ed.), Madness, disability and social exclusion: The archaeology and anthropology of ‘difference’ (pp. 159–167). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  25. Durán, L., & Furniss, G. (1999). Sunjata: Gambian versions of the Mande epic by Bamba Suso and Banna Kanute, trans. Gordon Innes. New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  26. Eltis, D. (2004). The diaspora of Yoruba speakers, 1650-1865: Dimensions and implications. In T. Falola & M. Childs (Eds.), The Yoruba diaspora in the Atlantic world (pp. 17–39). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Falola, T. (2003). The power of African cultures. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.Google Scholar
  28. Falola, T., & Jennings, C. (2002). Africanizing knowledge: African Studies across the disciplines. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
  29. Field, M. (1961). Religion and medicine of the Ga people. London: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Garland-Thomson, R. (1996). Extraordinary bodies: Figuring physical disability in American culture and literature. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Grech, S. (2012). Disability and the majority world: A neocolonial approach. In D. Goodley, B. Hughes, & L. Davis (Eds.), Disability and social theory: New developments and directions (pp. 52–69). New York: Palgrave MacMillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Groce, N. (1985). Everyone here spoke sign language: Hereditary deafness on Martha’s Vineyard. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Hall, H. U. (1927). Dwarfs and divinity in West Africa. Museum Journal, 18 (Pennsylvania University Museum).Google Scholar
  34. Hammond, D., & Jablow, A. (1992). The Africa that never was: Four centuries of British writing about Africa. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.Google Scholar
  35. Heard, E. (1941). “Folklore.” Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves, Georgia Narratives, Volume IV, Part 4. Washington, DC: Library of Congress.Google Scholar
  36. Herskovits, M. (1941). The myth of the negro past. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  37. Hurston, Z. (2009). Tell my horse: Voodoo and life in Haiti and Jamaica. New York: HarperCollins.Google Scholar
  38. Ingstad, B., & Whyte, S. (1995). Disability and culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  39. Kennedy, S. (2015). “Let them be young and stoutly set in limbs”: Race, labor and disability in the British Atlantic World. Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, 37–52.Google Scholar
  40. Killam, G. (1973). African writers on African writing. Evanston: Northwestern.Google Scholar
  41. Levine, L. (1977). Black culture and black consciousness: Afro-American folk thought from slavery to freedom. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Linton, S. (1998). Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Livingston, J. (2005). Debility and the moral imagination in Botswana. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Longmore, P., & Umansky, L. (2001). The new disability history: American perspectives. New York: New York University.Google Scholar
  45. Lynch, P., & Roberts, J. (2010). African mythology. New York: Chelsea House.Google Scholar
  46. Meekosha, H. (2011). Decolonizing disability: Thinking and acting globally. Disability and Society, 26(6), 667–682.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Midlo Hall, G. (2005). Slavery and African ethnicities in the Americas. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.Google Scholar
  48. Mintz, S., & Price, R. (1992). The birth of African American culture: An anthropological perspective. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  49. Mirzoeff, N. (1995). Framed: The deaf in the harem. In J. Terry & J. Urla (Eds.), Deviant bodies (pp. 49–77). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Moses, P. (1941). Slave narratives: A folk history of slavery in the United States from interviews with former slaves (pp. 142–144). Washington: Library of Congress.Google Scholar
  51. Mustakeem, S. (2016). Slavery at sea: Terror, sex, and sickness in the Middle Passage. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  52. Nichols, R. (1993). An examination of some traditional African attitudes toward disabilities. In B. Mallory, R. Nichols, J. Charleton & K. Marfo (Eds.), Traditional and changing views of disabilities in developing societies: Causes, consequences, cautions (pp. 25–40). New Hampshire University and Durham Institute on Disability.Google Scholar
  53. Nielsen, K. (2012). A disability history of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  54. Opokuwaa, N. (2005). The quest for spiritual transformation: Introduction to traditional Akan religion, rituals and practices. New York: iUniverse.Google Scholar
  55. Oyěwùmí, O. (1997). The invention of woman: Making an African sense of western gender discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  56. Oyěwùmí, O. (2005). Visualizing the body: Western theories and African Subjects. In O. Oyěwùmí (Ed.), African gender studies: A reader (pp. 3–22). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  57. Parks, R. (1919). The conflict and fusion of cultures with special reference to the Negro. The Journal of Negro History, 4(2), 111–133.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Pelton, R. (1980). The trickster in West Africa: A study of mythic irony and sacred delight. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  59. Roberts, K. (2004). Yoruba family, gender, and kinship roles in New World slavery. In T. Falola & M. Childs (Eds.), The Yoruba diaspora in the Atlantic world (pp. 248–259). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  60. Schweik, S. (2009). The ugly laws: Disability in public. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  61. Scalenghe, S. (2014). Disability in the Ottoman Arab World, 1500–1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Senier, S. (2013). “Traditionally, disability was not seen as such”: Writing and healing in the work of Mohegan medicine people. Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, 7(2), 213–229.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Shuttleworth, R., & Kasnitz, D. (2004). Stigma, community, ethnography: Joan Ablon’s contribution to the anthropology of impairment-disability. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 18(2), 139–161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Smallwood, S. (2007). Saltwater slavery: A middle passage from Africa to American diaspora. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  65. Soyinka, W. (1997). Wole Soyinka on Yoruba religion: a conversation with Ulli Beier. Isokan Yoruba Magazine, 3(2).Google Scholar
  66. Stiker, H. (1999). A history of disability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.Google Scholar
  67. Thomas, E. (1938). Interview with Mary A. Poole. In Born in slavery: Slave narratives from the federal writers’ project, 1936–1938, Alabama narratives (Vol. I, p. 376).Google Scholar
  68. Wendell, S. (1996). The rejected body: Feminist philosophical reflections on disability. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race StudiesWashington State UniversityPullmanUSA

Personalised recommendations