Book Review: Black Madness::Mad Blackness (Therí Pickens)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

When my copy of Therí Pickens Black Madness::Mad Blackness arrived, I was eager to dig into it. It is no secret that for much of its short history, disability studies has been essentially a white enclave. As Pickens points out in her introduction, it was not really until the work of Chris Bell that an alarm sounding this situation went out and, even today, disability studies in the United States is scrambling to rectify this situation. Unfortunately, I was no more than a few sentences into the book when I discovered Pickens' apparent maxim for writing: if a sentence can be understood by more than 2% of the population, it isn't worth writing. While that strikes me as an odd attitude for someone engaged in a field where accessibility is a major issue, I will admit it – I do not fall into that two per cent. That has both its negative side and its positive one. The negative side is that in translating the book into the vernacular I'm likely to misinterpret much of Pickens bedrock intent. The positive side is that since Black Madness::Mad Blackness is framed as an invitation to conversation, I believe the door is open for me to join in.

Pickens has chosen the topic of Black madness/ mad Blackness to force open a conversation between two fields of scholarship: Black studies and disabilities studies. One of the overriding concerns is that each of these groups privileges its own point of view and, in the process, has lead to the erasure or metaphorization of the other. After laying out views by several scholars within each of these groups, Pickens announces, "I choose to name these scholars explicitly as part of a scholarly politic that lays bare what work has already been done and by whom so that we can no longer remark that the two fields do not speak to each other."

Because, in Pickens' view, definitions of sanity adhere to a particular view of Enlightenment-derived rationality, madness serves as a particularly suitable site of disability to explore. She argues that Black madness, far from being pathological, has often been a way escaping white racism even if, as she points out, it does not increase agency. Pickens turns to Black American speculative fiction as the raw material for discussion because she views it as being one in which the characters have the space to be most free from ableist constraints.

Despite Pickens' description of the book as being "deliberately wayword," Black Madness::Mad Blackness follows a fairly conventional structure. After the preface, crediting those who influenced and helped her that is (obligatory in academic work), the book consists of five parts: an introduction, three "conversations" each discussing a book length work or works of African American women speculative fiction writers, and a fourth conversation in which she draws out the implications of the previous discussions and invites the work of a Black male fiction writer into the conversation.

The three speculative fiction writers whose work Pickens interrogates are Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, and Tananarive Due. It is a cagey sequence, not only because it allows Pickens to draw out her points on the trajectory that she has in mind, but because it moves from the work most readers are most likely to know to the least. Butler is well established as one of the twentieth century's most important science fiction writers and even many who have no interest in science fiction will have read her almost classic novel, Kindred. This gives the reasonably well-read reader a chance to have formulated an opinion about that work before taking on Pickens' interpretations. Nalo Hopkinson does not have Butler's audience but has been a fervent advocate for greater inclusivity in science and fantastic fiction as through her work in editing the anthology So Long Been Dreaming. Tananarive Due's work, I confess, was entirely unknown to me.

This sequence does double duty for Pickens. It allows her, in steps, to strip away the conventional concepts that most readers are comfortable with to eventually bring them to a place of complete dislocation and embrace hypotheses that they may not have been ready for had she begun with Due. It also allows her to bring Butler into the fold (pun intended) by choosing what is atypical of Butler – a story featuring a vampire.

Each of the three conversations with these writers – and the fourth conversation as well – are broken into two parts. The first part consists of "a discussion of the critical literature as a critical inroad to raising questions that have overlooked or elided." The second is a discussion of the chosen text itself, which she calls an intervention. (Without drawing it out at length here, it is fair to point out that one could argue that the whole concept of an intervention is itself ableist.)

In giving a brief taste of the conversations around each of these three authors, I will be relying heavily on Pickens' own words. While these are, admittedly, out of context, it at least forecloses the possibility of my misinterpretation and also affords potential readers a taste of the authors' style.

Pickens approaches Butler (and the other authors as well) with the following assertion:

…thinking about Blackness and madness as mutually constituted leads us toward reading the two identities as an avenue toward agency when they are located in the same body. I object[ed] to this line of thought because it requires that Blackness operate as a stepping stone for imagining agency only under certain material conditions and assumes that mere knowledge of one's condition suffices as emancipatory.

Despite her statement that the three writings she chose are not illustrative, Pickens' use of Butler's Fledgling seems calculated to provide evidence for the above position. Fledgling explores the concept of Blackness and madness in the context of personal intimacy. In the novel, the Gordon's who are white, liberal and care about Shori (the protagonist and fledgling of the title), nevertheless define the terms of sanity within the context of their own cultural history. Any resistance to those terms is seen as madness and as a result eclipse agency.

As Pickens puts it, "Blackness remains a wrinkle in in the linear progression of history and time because of its opposition to their dominant ideology." In the novel, because of the conditions set out for her, Shori becomes symbolic of the "bare life," one that is allowed to exist but cannot participate in the future. Thus, while Butler's novel points to the possibility of resistance, there are no solutions. Though Pickens surely has her own agenda, a nod needs to be given to her scholarship (which is never in question, anyway), for going back through the various pre-published texts of Butler's novel to try to get a grip on the issues that the author was struggling with and the various solutions that she considered for them.

Having made her point about the impossibilities of the mutual existence of Blackness and madness within the confines of the putative Enlightenment project, Pickens is now set up to begin the second conversation. In this one, she turns to the work of Nalo Hopkinson to explore how Blackness and madness function in an intraracial context.

Hopkinson's Midnight Robbers features both a character with a cognitive impairment and one with mental illness. Quamina does not use speech, but represents the ways that silence and non-verbal communication can be productive even when not recognized by the dominant culture. One result of looking at Hopkinson's novel is that despite not wanting to look at origin stories (which she equates with medicalization) in Midnight Robbers, Pickens is able to say, "Quamina's impairment is the result of power of Black cisheteropatriarchy, a clear reminder that impairment is politicized." Quamina's ability to participate as a citizen is still dependent upon her productive worth; the novel helps "to clarify that ableism is not merely a problem of interracial encounter." Mental disability is represented in the character of Tan-Tan (the Robber Queen), whose experiences double Quamina.

In the third conversation, Pickens explores Tananarive Due's African Immortals series "as a mad Black text that operates as a heuristic, questions the validity of human as a concept, and explores the repercussions of abandoning it." Due's series contains four novels.

Pickens' distrust of the concept of human, as mentioned above, comes from its derivations from and attachment to Enlightenment rationalism and the subsequent view of history it has generated.

In Due's novels, to an even greater extent than those of Butler and Hopkinson, Pickens is concerned with looking at both the characters experiences and the aesthetic structure of the text itself. Due's characters experience a racialized paranoia affecting the very structure of the text. It is an experimentation that allows her to explore not just what the effects of what the commonly assumed qualifications for being human are on Blackness and madness, but what happens to Blackness and madness when that Englightenment view of the concept of human is subtracted from them. Pickens sets up three questions for herself: "how or whether the human has purchase when one desires Blackness (forever); how the ideology of ability functions; and, finally, what happens if/when the modes of analysis that privilege the human fall apart for those it was designed to protect."

Though Pickens eschews conclusions, one of the things that Due's text does seem to say is that disability and Blackness can never be apolitical; however, when Enlightenment reverence of individualism and able-bodiedness are replaced by preferences for access to wellness and community, the definition of human might shift dramatically.

Having examined specific texts of the African American women writers, Pickens summarizes before heading off into the fourth conversation:

A small bit of redistricting: Octavia E. Butler's work wonders whether mutual construction functions as an adroit reading strategy. Nalo Hopkinson suggests the interracial space may offer some disruptive aesthetic and narrative potential, which challenges Butler without dismissing the possibility for new narrative strategy. Tananarive Due's heuristic queries how either of the worlds Butler and Hopkinson craft become possible given the ideological concept of being human.

Perhaps in anticipation of the criticism that views she has braided together so far have all come from a feminist perspective and may not necessarily hold when applied more broadly, she does invite a male writer into the conversation – Mat Johnson. I'm all for bringing the work of relatively unknown writers to the fore, but it is curious to me that she did not consider the work of Samuel Delaney (who is not even mentioned in the book's impressive bibliography). Surely, Delaney would qualify as a speculative fiction writer who is concerned about both Blackness and madness. I suspect it is because Delaney couldn't be shoehorned into the agenda; however, Pickens' announced desire to broaden her scope to the Black novel more generally is certainly a valid one.

As Pickens says at the beginning of the book, speculative fiction may be the novel form that allows writers the most freedom in breaking out of old modes of thinking and creating new possibilities for its characters. Those likely to be reading Black Madness::Mad Blackness are probably already familiar with Leonard Davis' argument of the novel form as a very conservative mode whose main purpose is to return everything to the mainstream and "normality." And they probably also are familiar with David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's concept of "narrative prosthesis," which effectively applies Davis' thesis specifically to disability. Pickens' herself points out that as a form, the novel "allows only for the truth of what readers are ready to accept, the meanings the already acknowledge, the values they hold." It is in this context that she looks at what Mat Johnson has to offer: "Johnson deploys the mad Black without resorting to the oft-used technique of thinking through this character as a problem in need of solution." In other words, he refuses narrative prosthesis.

The Johnson novel that Pickens considers is Hunting in Harlem. As with the previous three writers, Pickens is looking at novel aesthetics as well as content and one of the things that Johnson's novel critiques is the fact the Black novel has traditionally been based upon consumption by white readership and, as a result, in order to be a novel must participate in the values of those readers. Pickens draws out some of the implications of that reality for the concepts of Blackness and madness that she has been discussing and looks briefly at some of the solutions tries. As she has fore-warned the reader, Pickens does not attempt to wrap things up.

As a viewer, I try not to take books to the woodshed for not accomplishing what they are not attempting. Pickens is very clear that she is a scholar writing for other scholars. It is hard and important work. Scholars are in the trenches too, it's just that their trenches are a lot less muddy. Jacques Derrida can use all of the wordplay, obfuscational language and coinages for words that don't need them that he wants, and no one is going to care. From what I can see, Derrida wasn't much interested in disability or accessibility. Somehow, though, using those techniques in work about disability feels a bit like a game of pickle in the middle, with most of us (including people who are the subject of this book), being the pickle. Accessibility is not just about wheelchair ramps.

For all of that, Pickens' book is an important one for at least two reasons. She is making inroads into a topic that has been too long ignored, and she his highlighting the work of four writers working in disability fictions whose work deserves a wider public. Her detailed summaries of the books she discusses provide a genuine opportunity for readers to consider whether they might be interested in trying them out. The bibliography that Pickens' book provides is a generous one that will provide a real boon to disability scholars who want to pursue the topics. This is aided by the "Notes" she has provided at the back of the book that provides even greater depth and context to the chapters.

What I would hope for from Black Madness::Mad Blackness is that it gets scholars talking. It would be interesting to hear the responses of others who are knowledgeable on topics Pickens has written about. I can definitely envision a future conference panel around it. Perhaps, too, some of those scholars and panel members would be able to translate what is offered in this volume into a vernacular that the remainder of us can grasp, really think about, and, perhaps, act on.

Title: Black Madness::Mad Blackness
Author: Therí Pickens
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication Date: 2018


Michael Northen is the editor of Wordgathering and an editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability. He is also an editor of the recent anthology of disabiity short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press).