“Reading Loop” is a close reading or discussion by an invited contributor.
Being a Badass
by Kathi Wolfe
(listen to this poem, read by the author), with a brief introduction
This is Kathi Wolfe. My poem is called “Being A Badass.”
Being a Badass.
I’m ten, at camp in South Jersey,
trying to check myself for ticks. My blind
eyes can’t see the tiny bugs. I don’t
feel anything crawling up my legs.
The kids say the insects
are bloodsuckers. I’m scared
of vampires. Of bullies who say
blind girls smell.
The counselors say
I’m “special.” I don’t want
to be “special” – alone,
my guts sucked by fear.
You and your army
aren’t on my radar.
I don’t know that
crip pride can make
a bully fall.
At the library, I checkout
a book on Eleanor Roosevelt.
The teacher has assigned it
to me. The other kids
get to read The Catcher
in the Rye and Slaughter
House Five. Blind teens
can’t handle teenage
angst or be for peace.
At least it’s not Helen Keller,
I think. I won’t know
you can be a rebel
until I hear of you.
In a coffee shop with a friend,
I’m just waking up. Did you hear,
he yelps into my caffeine fog, reading
“The New York Times” story on you,
“Woman in Wheel Chair Sues
to Become Teacher”?
Your battle cry was heard
everywhere in my world.
Paul Revere’s revolutionary
howl, FDR’s “day of infamy.”
had nothing on it. Who before
you had fought, and won,
against the blood-sucking
You knew we have rights
before we knew we were
human. Making out, making
love, making money, kicking
Being a badass
isn’t for those who worry
their hair will be mussed
up in a fight,
their food, medicine,
will be taken away,
if they stage
a sit-in for a month.
With the panache of Patton,
the moxie of Rita Moreno,
you’ve led us on our journey
that’s made history.
“Blind girls have cooties,” Frankie, my elementary school playground nemesis. taunted me when I told him I’d be a writer when I grew up. “You can’t be a writer.”
Decades later, a teacher wasn’t pleased to find me in his poetry workshop. He asked me to come out to the hall. “You can stay as long as your blindness doesn’t put too many demands on the other students,” he told me.
I was the teacher’s worst nightmare. I stayed in the class. At the end of the semester, my first chapbook was published. Then, I heard, he bragged about having me as a student.
These memories surfaced when I heard that Judith (Judy) Heumann died in March at age 75. Like so many, I was saddened by her death. Judy (if you knew her for two minutes or 20 years, you thought of her on a first name basis) was a force of nature. Hearing of her death made me feel like the speaker in Frank O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died,” who, suddenly, in the midst of a normal day, learns that Billie Holiday has died. He sees “a NEW YORK POST with her face on it/,” O’Hara writes, “and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of/leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT/…and I stopped breathing.”
Judy is revered by the disability community as the mother of the disability rights movement. Recently, due to the fabulous documentary Crip Camp, Judy has become more well-known generally. “She’s cool,” my sister-in-law said of Judy after she watched Crip Camp. “When I was growing up, we thought disabled people were stupid.”
Crip Camp (especially, seeing and hearing Judy) made her see how untrue that was. “That’s a strange place to be writing about Judy Heumann,” my friend Penny said to me when I told her I was working on this piece for Wordgathering, a literary journal. “I think of her disability advocacy,” Penny said.
Like many, Penny’s thoughts of Judy turned to her groundbreaking political advocacy: from her successful litigation against New York City’s Board of Education when it said she couldn’t teach because she was in a wheelchair to her leadership role in the 1977 “504″ sit-in to her role as a Special Advisor to the Obama Administration.
I, too, revere Judy for her political activism. But, as a poet, I also remember (and owe much to) her love of the arts and encouragement of disabled artists (from poets to actors to musicians).
On the day that the “504” regulations were signed, I attended an interfaith gathering In New York. We believed Judy and the others in the “504” sit-in were like Moses and the Israelites in the desert. Maybe they hadn’t gotten to the Promised Land. But they’d brought us close to it.
To me, as a queer person, the “504” sit-in was the Stonewall Uprising of the disability community. Before “504,” I hadn’t thought of myself, a disabled person, as having rights. On an afternoon one day in 1975, a librarian in a Boston library said I had no right to be there. Because, as she told me, “blind people shouldn’t be out alone.” On hearing this, I left the building. It didn’t occur to me that I could fight disability-based discrimination. And, in that time prior to “504,” I likely would have had no legal recourse.
The “504” regulations are part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. These regulations prohibit entities receiving federal funds (libraries, courts, hospitals, etc.) from discriminating against disabled people. The “504” regs are the precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).
Thanks to “504” (and, especially, to Judy), generations of people are out and proud as disabled. Judy was the Harvey Milk of the disability community.
“504” was as life-changing for me as coming out as queer and coming out as a poet.
I don’t think I’d be a poet (well, not the poet I am) if Judy (and the movement she founded) hadn’t nudged me toward disability pride.
If you weren’t out and proud about being disabled, Judy wanted to know why. “Why don’t you put your disability in your biography?” Judy asked me in a text she sent me a couple of weeks before she died.
I might still have grown up to be a poet if there had been no Judy to start a disability rights movement. But I wager that I’d have been a far different poet than I turned out to be. I doubt if I would have written poems that revealed the hidden (feminist, socialist history) of Helen Keller or created my Uppity Blind Girl character. I don’t know if I’d have written (as I often do) poems that are unrelated to disability. That tell stories of love, sex, death, grief, loss, food, God, gods–the usual subjects of poetry. I suspect I’d be writing poems filled with ableist metaphors (about the “land of darkness,” “deaf ears,” etc.). I’d have no clue that these were demeaning disability metaphors. Let alone the confidence to demand that a poetry website or organization be accessible.
Though we might wish it wasn’t so, the poetry world has the same prejudices as the world at large. Including ableism. If I had only a nickel for every time a poet has said to me (because I’m legally blind), “you’re such an inspiration,” I’d no longer be a “starving” poet.
Ableism still persists in the poetry world. But Judy, with her work and personality, did much to encourage change in attitudes toward disability and disabled people.
“I never wished I didn’t have a disability,” Judy wrote in Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, which she co-authored with Kristen Joiner.
Judy’s conviction that disability isn’t a tragedy – that disability is a normal part of being human – has become etched in the DNA of increasing numbers of disabled poets. It’s slowly beginning to catch on for nondisabled people in the poetry world.
Judy cheered me (and others in the arts) on when we battled against inaccessibility. She also encouraged us to fight against the ableist trope that disabled poets should (or could) only write about disability. “I’m glad that you have other sides to yourself,” Judy told me after she read some of my poems that had nothing to do with disability.
Above all, Judy appreciated the often transgressive, badass nature of art. “I love your poetry because it’s so personal,” she said to me once over the phone. “It’s moving. Sometimes badass.”
“I like that, badass,” she added.
Judy was the greatest badass ever.
Kathi Wolfe’s Reading Loop is connected with “Honoring and Celebrating Judy Heumann,” a special section in this issue of Wordgathering. You can also read more of Kathi Wolfe’s poetry in this issue of Wordgathering.
About the Author
Kathi Wolfe is a poet and writer. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry Magazine, The New York Times, Wordgathering, Rogue Agent, and other publications. She is a contributor to the anthologies QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology and Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Her most recent poetry collection is Love and Kumquats (BrickHouse Books). Wolfe is a contributor with the Washington Blade (www.washingtonblade.com), the acclaimed LGBTQ+ paper.