Episode 39: Keith Jones (click for transcript)
Interview Date | May 27, 2020
JILL: Welcome to the DisTopia podcast, where we look at Disability from the inside out. [peaceful music fades in] My name is Jill Vyn, and I’m the cohost of this podcast with my friend and colleague, Chris Smit.
What you are listening to now is the first of two interrelated components of our My Dearest Friends project, both of which have been generously underwritten by the Ford Foundation. The My Dearest Friends podcast, which is produced by DisTopia, is a series of recorded conversations with Disabled people about their individual experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the personal, cultural, and political alterations it has triggered. These informal conversations give our guests the opportunity to share personal experiences of sheltering in place and to engage in conversations around deeper questions raised about the value of Disabled people, the core values of the Disability culture, as well as our hopes, fears, and strategies for living an authentic and pride-filled Disabled life.
The second component of the My Dearest Friends project is created in partnership with Disabled artist Oaklee Thiele, who is creating black and white illustrations that represent our collective response to our new and uncertain realities as a Disabled community. Designed as an open invitation to the Disabled community around the world, we invite all of you to participate. More information can be found on Instagram @MyDearestFriendsProject, Facebook, and on our website, DisArtNow.org.
As is true for many of you, our desire for this project is to share our experiences as a Disabled community, to disrupt ableist beliefs, to celebrate a culture whose lived experience of Disability necessitates flexibility and creativity, and to validate Disabled voices and perspectives in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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KEITH: My name is Keith Jones. I am the President/CEO of SoulTouchin’ Experiences, a company I started to bring a perspective around public policy, disability, and ethnicity in terms of making sure that they all coincide to go together. I’ve been doing advocacy for about 30 years now, and I’m hoping that, through this, that we can raise the level of awareness. Not just awareness, but move it towards practical, pragmatic implementation of problem-solving solutions for everybody. That’s Keith Jones.
You know, the world is just going mad at the moment, so if you hear a bunch of alerts, that’s just people trying to suck me into their vortex that I will not go! [laughs]
JILL: [chuckles] You will resist.
KEITH: I will resist!
I’m not liking humans lately, [laughing] so I’m trying to be like, trying to give them, trying to not complete poopoo our species. But we have shown the— The running joke in the house is that if humans are the height of intelligence in the universe, we are screwed. [laughs] If we are the height of the apex of intelligence, but even with our intelligence, we still choose to dispense death and discrimination over petty, very baseless reasons, then you’re not the smartest species in the universe. Actually, they might wanna take us out! I think that’s what Thanos did in The Avengers, but you know. [laughs]
JILL: [laughs] I think you might be right. You just said you’re not liking humans. I’m not exactly sure the exact words, but basically, you seem disgruntled, to say the least. What’s the source of that right in this moment?
KEITH: Right in this moment is I called it “chosen stupidity.” It’s chosen stupidity. And this permeates every level of public policy, every level of community organizing. So, to give an example, we did a training on accessibility and sexual assault survivors, particularly in the pandemic. The fact that I have to train you on being accessible for a person who’s coming to seek your services when that is your mission means that either a, you’re only doing the mission to soothe yourself, which is why you have gaps. Like, “Oh, well, we don’t have interpreters. Oh, we’re not in an accessible spot. We don’t know anybody who speaks Thai or Spanish or Creole.” That means you have a very Eurocentric, monolithic view of trauma services.
And if you talking bout politics, I bleed from my eyes when I watch TV! I try not to watch TV. If your elected leaders are discussing your health in terms of cost, then they are not interested in the, this is not hyperbole. If the rationale is, “Well, we have to compromise with the Republicans in order to….” Fine. But both of you are only giving up ground, and neither one of you will be directly impacted by it except in the political sphere. Because you have complete universal healthcare, you have a guaranteed living wage, and you have job security. And even if you lose after the first election cycle, you have a lifetime pension. And for you to debate on what do we need to do in a pandemic, and everything that has been done—especially over the last four years—has been a complete abdication of political responsibility. Because everything is couched as politics versus how do we protect individuals with disabilities who receive direct care in a COVID situation when their caregivers fall in the category of essential but high-risk workers, and they fall in the category of high-risk individuals? If your job is policy, you say, “Well, what’s the root of that cause? What’s the problem? What have we tried? What did not work? What did work? Here’s a solution.”
And again, none of the issues that we’re dealing with now happened when COVID showed up. [pause] So, and for you to spend millions of dollars to find yourself in a position to make these decisions, only to say, “Well, we have to get with our caucus and discuss what we’re going to do.” Mm. I almost used colorful language. But [laughs] it’s the term “healthcare disparity” has been around for 40 years. The term “structural poverty” has been around for 40 years! If you’ve been elected for 14 congressional cycles and yet, every time you stand up in front of the TV, “Oh, well, the American people, the American people,” that’s code word for “not you Negroes.” That’s code word for “Not you Latinos, not you gays, not you First Nation.” That’s, “the American people” is the pitchfork, the overalls, and the farm with the chickens and the white family in Oklahoma. That’s the ubiquitous marketing that they pushed out. When they said, “We’re talking to the Heartland of America,” they not talking about us, right?! We’re talking to the Bible Belt. They’re not talking about us. I mean, code words. Language matters. That’s why everybody gets all tight about Donald Trump.
So, in this moment, we are seeing a devastating failure of leadership. Devastating. And this is from every level. So, yes, there are pockets of people doing what they can do with what they have. But this is, it’s sorta like watching somebody who was told, “If you keep doing this, you gonna get brittle bone disease. So, stop doing it, and don’t jump off the cliff.” And they ignore that and then went skydiving without a parachute. This is exactly where we are. Because you like, “Trump is not modeling good behavior!” He’s never modeled good behavior. And you keep asking! You keep asking him to do it. Black folks been saying, “Stop being racist” for 400 years. So, is it really a stretch that he won’t change? Is it really a stretch that being Black with a mask, going outside, I should just— I’m practicing social distancing, being responsible in a public health crisis. The running joke, which is a sad joke: I’m Black. You want me to be Black with a mask and walk into a store? In America? When I was walking in a store without a mask, and they said I was stealing stuff when I had the cash in my hand. You think the Central Park lady isn’t— In a pandemic, racism is exacerbated. In crises, people’s worst tendencies rumble to the surface.
And those who are in power seeking and see this as an opportunity to continue to go on with their ideology. Hence, we’re going to absolve nursing homes of liability because of people dying of COVID. We’re gonna absolve restaurant owners if they signed a waive because we told you to open up. Like that? That’s incongruent with their own statement: “We need to get the economy going.” Dead people don’t buy shit. Excuse my French. But they don’t! Sick people don’t buy stuff. But I’ve been screaming, at least in the house—people think I’m nuts ‘cause I’m always yelling at the TV—it’s that America, I said it two and a half months ago, America gets numb to death. We get numb to, we are numb to death. That’s my point. Secondly, when Dr. Fauci stood up at the very beginning of people starting to realize that people of color started to have a disproportional impact because of health factors, and he stood up and said—I think this was April 8th, actually—he said, “Oh, yeah. We’ve known this forever. We’ve known that co-morbidity….” And I was, the moment he said that, COVID got a color. The moment COVID got a color, open up the economy. Because if they are the ones dying, fuck it. I need to get my hair done, and I need to go to the restaurant. Which is why you see people gathering in pools, running to the beaches, da da da da da. But that was instantaneously the moment COVID got its color. And if you weren’t paying attention to what he said, it would’ve flown right over your head. But it followed, it got a color, mitigate for two weeks, then open up. And if you stand back and just look at it and go, wait. We’ve been like in a fucking pandemic, and you go to church en masse?! What?!
In 2019, we had something like 85 hospitals close in rural areas. In the last 15 to 20 years, we’ve grossly undermanaged our healthcare system. In the ‘90s, the fight was to get away from managed care. In the 2000s, it was get everybody covered. We had Obama. We had Harry Reid. We had Nancy Pelosi. We got the Affordable Care Act, not single-payer universal healthcare. We did not get a functional public-standing healthcare system where the impetus is not profit, but positive health outcomes. Those are distinctly different motivating factors. And now, in a pandemic, everything that we have said—the homeless crisis, the education crisis, the environmental crisis, the poverty crisis—all of these things now have been exacerbated or less exacerbated if not been brought to the forefront because everybody had to sit they asses down for a little bit. Then you got a chance to see it for it. And now you see it.
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You know, I just did the research ‘cause we have a podcast today, and I went back just because I don’t like talking without making sure that what I’m talking about is right! And so, every state’s data spikes in domestic abuse, sexual assault, inability to get services. How do I get out of my house if I’m in a wheelchair and it’s inaccessible, and the caregiver that I’m trapped with doesn’t wanna do the job, and they’re abusive? You wasn’t paying attention to me before the pandemic. What about now? I know you ain’t paying attention to me now. Like, we in a pandemic, and they still putting knees on necks and killing people. We’re in a pandemic, and they literally are hunting people down like they’re slave catchers. We’re in a pandemic, and they’re telling First Nation people, “Let us through,” even though we know we’re gonna bring death through you. But that’s what you do.
And so, again, going back to a cascading, devastating failure of leadership. You have people who say, “The root cause is…. We need to do….” 40,000 people in nursing homes are dying. That’s not because it just happened. We’ve been advocating for nursing homes to have better standards for 30 years. But then you’ll hear, “Well, the nursing home industry….” That means it’s about making money. And if they’re about making money, that means they have to find a way to make profit. And you being an old bag of flesh laying on the bed, they have to figure out how to commoditize you, you know? Well, we don’t wanna cook the old people like Hot Pockets. So, what we’ll do is we’ll put them in a convalescent home, a congregate home, but we’ll pay the people who we trust dirt wages to actually have empathy in order to make sure these people don’t die. That’s not the policy we’re getting. We’re getting, “Oh! Well, it’s cost. Well, how we gonna save America? This is gonna cost Americans. We’re not gonna redo the $600 ‘cause people are finding it easier to stay home because they’re making more money than they did—” No! Really?! [gasps] Stop it! Wasn’t the report just last year that if you made minimum wage and you lived in Boston, you need to work 126 hours a week in order to afford market-rate rent as a single person?
None of this stuff that we’re going through happened in March or January. This is the result of kicking the can down the road. If you dug up $2 trillion and gave $550 million of it to us, that’s $1.5 trillion. Where’s the other $1.5 trillion? Flint still ain’t got— There’s the homes in Flint where you have to shelter in place. Now you have to shelter in place in a pandemic with lead-poisoned water coming through your faucet. You’re in Standing Rock, and you have to protest toxic sludge coming over the largest water table in the continent to protect your sovereign land. But! It’s a pandemic, and yeah, we know we have treaties of 1867 and all that stuff, but fuck you. We need oil. That’s regardless of party. So, you can look at it flat and say, what has been the on-the-ground effects? Because it’s very easy to say, “Oh, well, I’m a Conservative, and I think that smaller government.” Then you in Appalachia, your ass get hit with a tornado, and your smaller government doesn’t have the ability to replace your trailer, give you healthcare because now you got a black lung and trauma. But you love your, [adds a Southern drawl], “Well, Jesus said it is my right! These stars and bars right here is not racism. This is my heritage!” [back to regular accent] You mean the symbol of the Confederacy that is a sign of treason and sedition? That one? [Southern drawl] “That’s my heritage!” [sighs, then back to regular accent] Yes, your heritage. Your heritage that the reason y’all went to war was to keep people under oppressive rules so you could generate economic wealth without having to compensate your labor force. Am I correct? OK.
So, that has lasted for 200 years, and now you’re seeing the fruits of it. Joe Biden, by default, is the Democratic candidate. How did that happen? So, your political system that you want us to lean on, you basically shut down everything and said, we gon give it to the white man because we don’t like the other old white man. And we not really comfortable with the hold white woman. But we’re Liberal, and we’re Progressive and our solidly loyal, necessary voting bloc is Black, particularly Black women. But we are, as a Democratic party, “Oh! Donald Trump is horrible. We put together a news package. Another one. And you know, we’re looking out for our protections for our workers….” Almost used more colorful language. But! Your policies should not be done in a vacuum. If you can’t walk down Massachusetts Ave in D.C. and notice that your homeless population is literally steps from the Capitol and they’re not there by choice, those are policy ramifications. If you can’t do that, how are you standing up, and I’m supposed to have faith that you’re going to guide us in a world where people can’t—
Like, I’m debating. I’ve got kids on two coasts. My mama and my oldest daughter is in Boston, my twins and my son, who’s in the Navy, are in California. I’m stuck in the hot spot! And because of incompetence, if I wanted to go see or take care of any of my people, I have to one, am I a carrier? Two, if I get tested and I’m a carrier, is there even a capacity for me to even get treatment? Because Massachusetts put out a guideline that basically was like, [hisses and sighs] “Yeah, they gotta mm…pre-existing. Well…fuck ‘em.” And that’s public policy. They don’t couch it as such, but if you stand back and say, why are we rushing to open up, and we have not invoked a Defense Production Act to give protective PPEs or testing kits or to stand up hospitals in order that if we have a spike, that we could have a dedicated home. All those closed hospitals, you can stand them up and have dedicated units and get the staff the necessary equipment and compensation and treatment mechanisms so that they can handle this, and we can mitigate this response. That’s nowhere. And so, if you Disabled, if all of that is going on? I’m supposed to hope that y’all might get to me? You wasn’t getting to me before this! In a basic snow emergency, you don’t even plow the curb cuts! [laughs] Right? That’s snow! Like, this is a pandemic, and you….
So, but that’s the sentiment that a lot of people have been, at least have been filtering towards me. So, it’s not, I have my own sentiments about it, but I definitely cannot stand any politician—and I mean any leader, any leader—who has fought to get to their position, then invert themselves and say, “[sighs] Well, it’s a little expensive to get the American economy to prop people up. And we need to get the economy back moving.” I’m going to take the liberty to use a little colorful language. The fucking economy is a human invention, which means that if humans choose to stop using that invention, so be it. It does not exist in nature. I ain’t never planted a stick and had a $100 bill tree just pop up out the backyard. If I could find that, I got you! But that ain’t [laughs] that’s not how it works. So, if you know that, if you understand that the reason you can generate $2 trillion is because the Fed can print it, and then they’ll say, “Well, we don’t wanna flood the market with liquidity because we’re doing this whole dollar versus yen, dollar versus yuan, and we’re making sure that our currency is good,” without getting too deep into that ‘cause I’m into policy, ‘cause I could go down that rabbit hole. But the base of the dollar is not because we have $63 trillion in gold to support our debt. It’s because it’s based on the faith and credit of the presumption that the largest economy on the planet will continue to function. Which is driven by consumerism versus manufacturing, which is driven by people who make less than $12 an hour who incur debt in order to keep the economy moving. So, you, the politician, know that. And what you do is….
[sighs] we’re gonna have a debate on whether or not we should have another stimulus package. You getting a paycheck!! All of y’all are getting paid! None of you have gotten laid off. Nobody came to you and said, “OK, during the shutdown, all y’all asses is not getting paid.” You may hear one altruistic senator or congressmen, “I’m not going to take any money until….” You’ve abdicated oversight for four years. You’ve absolutely capitulated to a narcissistic, corrosive political stance for the last 12 years. And for the last 20 years, neoliberalism—last 25 years, actually—neoliberalism is more insidious than blatant we-hate-you conservatism. At least in conservatism, they’ll tell you they hate you. Like [laughs] no, you can’t control your womb! That’s ours! Well, what about when the baby’s here? Well, you shouldn’t have gotten pregnant. Right? That’s the abortion position of the Conservative: pro-birth, not pro-life. Different story. And if you have a disability when you born, oh, please. Maybe be sure that Roe v. Wade stand. That’s how insipidous and insidious it plays out. So, I’m hoping that in this moment—and I do cling to hope [chuckles], one fingernail. Ack!—I mean, outside of myself, that other people will get it. And not just get it and go, “Ah! Well, we’re gonna go be a pundit and talking head. We’re gonna do this, and we’re gonna yell and we’re gonna….” Enough.
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There’s real simple solutions, basic. It’s not complex. But they’re emotional. And as long as they’re tied to emotion, people become illogical and irrational and make emotional decisions. Hence, Donald Trump having a 40-point swing, white, educated women voters from Obama to him. They knew that he said, “I grab her by the…,” In a #MeToo moment, you chose the most racist, xenophobic, misogynistic person possible. And from a sociological standpoint, it had nothing to do with it. There’s a psychological component where the underpinning could’ve been that woman hating a woman thing, right? That’s one of them. But the other underpinning is they’re like, Donald Trump spoke to whiteness, to a very particular whiteness: “They’re coming to take our stuff. They’re savages. They’re threatening our take. We need to take back our America.” And in white America’s mind, they have lost that, which I call it the Christian Conservative jihad. It started 40 years ago in response to the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, the ERA push, Brown versus Board of Education, affirmative action. All of those pushes engendered a Conservative Christian jihad in backlash. Hence, think tanks: the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Conservative think tanks. Then you have all that stuff. And if you trace it back, you have the rise of the moral majority with Christian conservatism along with the GOP. And that came with Regan. And all of that has set the stage for where we are now.
And if you’re a person of color or a person with a disability, or if you are on the margins of the way society is constructed, everything that’s happening is not unintentional. Benign neglect is still neglect. So, if you’re still saying, “[gasps] Well, it’s horrible,” in watching the talking heads. “Well, the president needs to come back and lead the country,” he’s not! [sighs]…He….It’s….The election’s in six months! You’ve been saying for three and a half years he needs to lead the country! Guess what. He ain’t. Gon. Do it. He ain’t gon do it. He ain’t gon do it. And he’s such a Svengali that he had two of the more pre-eminent virologists and doctors in pandemics standing on either side of him, neither one of them practicing their very own recommendations! And then trying to walk that balance of serving the president and maintaining their credibility. But I’m dying! I’m Black, and there are no tests. She’s white with a ventilator. She’s going to die. He’s gay and has a hidden disability and has depression in onslaught, and you told us to sit in place, and he doesn’t have mental access. So, he cannot talk to a psychologist. Because you forgot. Oh, we’re gonna stay at home, and everybody can telecommute. The term is called “digital divide,” right?! Like, again, that existed pre-COVID.
There’s chasms in this country where you can pick a kid’s zip code, and you can literally predict his socio-economic future. And not because that’s what he wants or she wants, but because that’s the way policy has been constructed. So, again, circling all back: chosen stupidity. Because if I’m negotiating in a room with other politicians, we know, we all know that we have no skin in the game outside of our chances to get re-elected. So, what is our motivation? Is our motivation to be the best policy with the most pragmatic and real-world solutions embedded in the policy in order to address childhood poverty, childhood hunger, homelessness, education divide, digital divide, the urban, suburban, rural area? No! We’re gonna get ahead. We’re gonna say, “Well, we need this. We need this. And we’ll package it. We wrote a 1,000-page bill.” And it takes so long. They don’t watch Schoolhouse Rock. [laughs] Right? [sings] Yes, I’m a bill. Yes, I’m only a bill. And I’m sittin’…. Like, you gonna [laughs]…. So, I go crazy, and I just, I, you know, and we’re gonna try to launch this campaign probably in two weeks and see what happens. And if we can make some noise about being a presidential candidate, at least we can raise the discussion.
Because Joe Biden being the default candidate? Bruh! And you just went on Charlemagne tha God, and you, [sighs]. I don’t wanna hear, “Oh, that’s just how Joe speaks.” The hell outta here. Joe, they call you Amtrak Joe. That means you rode, you rode through downtown D.C. to get on Amtrak to go through Baltimore, to get all the way down to Delaware. How much poverty do you pass on that railway? How much poverty is still there on that railway that you took? And now you wanna be president. Bruh, you had your hands on the steering wheel. And now, what is he gonna tell people now? It’s like, we’re all passengers with a drunk driver behind the wheel, and he’s blindfolded. And we’re [laughs] and we’re all strapped in with our hands behind our backs so nobody can grab the wheel until he crashes. So, I guess that’s probably the way I kinda look at it in terms of the operating environment. But understanding the environment doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm to correct those ills. That’s the part that I drink a lotta liquor for [laughs] and drink a lotta coffee because going out in that kind of environment, knowing that if you go—
So, I wrote something called The HIRE, I called it The HIRE Act: Healthcare Infrastructure and Re-imagining and Engaging. Essentially, it was bringing those closed hospitals back online some more. Because most of those that closed were in the areas that need them the most, rural areas. Secondly, you roll healthcare into the AmeriCorps principle, and so all of those kids who got kicked out of school or who are fifth-year med students who need the practices, now we’ll put your ass into training. All of that becomes a national corps. And you know where the hot spots are. You train them up. You send them into Navajo Nation because Navajo Nation is being decimated. You send them into Blackfoot. You send them into Chicago. You send them into Washington. You send them. And that’s leadership. That’s not you going to go by Nancy Pelosi to see if she thinks it’s cool. That’s not Chuck Schumer, “And Mr. President saying,” you know. Chuck? People to listen when their elected official say, “Well, I’m not comfortable with making that decision.” What the hell are you there for? What are you there for? The job is to write legislation, provide oversight, and to do the best for the American people. If you and your caucus have to get together and say “[sighs] Well, you know, I think we should take this time with schools being closed to say that we need a school infrastructure package where all schools are Wi-Fi-enabled, whether they in the hood or they in the sticks. You shouldn’t be able to pick a child’s destiny by his zip code. So, I’m gonna get off my soapbox now.
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JILL: These aren’t new ideas. These are opinions that you formed over years.
KEITH: Yeah. And because of the work, I make sure I’m gonna say yes, it’s an opinion. But the term that we walk in, in SoulTouchin’ Experiences and any work, quantifiable and qualitative. Everybody can have an opinion, but when I state quote “and opinion,” qualitative and quantitative. ‘Cause I’ll tell people, “Aw, no, Keith! You just mad ‘cause you Black!” No! I love my chocolateness. And I will [laughs], and if I can make it pay without dealing with your dumb ass, I’d keep doing it! But I gotta to go, you know. And so, you can quantify. It’s qualitative. Life expectancy measures are not a subjective tool, right? Quality of life is subjective, except you can pick out very qualitative metrics: air quality, environmental conditions, schooling, access to what we call public infrastructure. Those things are qualifiable and quantitative. And if you look at them based upon, and you juxtapose it to ethnic breakouts and overlay that along poverty numbers, that’s qualitative. Now, where people get into opinion is, “Well, what are we gonna do to fix it?” [chuckles] Right? That’s where their opinions come in. I was like, oh.
If I’m talking to teachers, and teachers are still having issues about having kids with disabilities included in their class, what the hell you been doing teaching for? So, you only wanna teach certain kids? Well, then you don’t need to be in the public school system. I am absolutely for standing up your own private little weird little world where you wanna have all of your idiosyncratic hates and prejudice blossom and grow. Then, fine. You do understand that once you come out of that bubble, you will be in a public social interaction, and the right that you had to be racist, somebody else has the right to be offended at your racism, all right? Gotta keep it even! So, these opinions are really predicated upon one, historical data, trajectory of policy, watching the shift of both political parties over the last 43 years, and having been very much active in a lot of stuff that, at its genesis, before it got to the federal point, we were in those fights. So, what they used to call RomneyCare we called Healthcare For All, and it was a six-year fight to get Massachusetts. Like, “You don’t wanna cover people? “Well, it costs too much.” “Of course it costs too much because you’re not doing proactive healthcare. You’re doing reactive healthcare. You took healthcare outta the school. You took activities out of school. You took healthy foods outta school. You made it impossible for a tomato to be 15 cents.” It’s easier to get a bag of chips and a juice than it is to get an avocado. And then use the term “food desert,” right? OK. So, the kiss of death in gentrification is when Whole Foods shows up in your area. When Whole Foods sets up a grocery store, anybody can document a sheet of paper, “It was nice having you. Start packing your shit.” That’s, for this 30 years in Boston, Brooklyn. Harlem is now so hot. Come on. And that policy psyche permeates how they handle individuals with disabilities in nursing homes, how you handle the homelessness.
If you really wanna chuckle, the CDC issued a guideline for how the homeless population, how to handle themselves in this COVID pandemic. They said you should not go to shelters, you should avoid large gatherings, and you should be at least two arm lengths away from anybody. Should wash your hands thoroughly, 20 seconds. I’m taking the liberty to use some colorful language. They’re fucking homeless. These are CDC guidelines?! Nobody at the table said, “So, how they gon wash their hands?” Nobody asked that question! Nobody said, “Well, how do we protect the homeless population who manage to get into shelters? What about domestic violence shelters for families who are in transition?” “Well, we’re arguing with the Trump administration to get money into the Postal Service.” And again, this has been a 40-year battle. Why is it a constitutional service, not federally funded? But if you don’t know your history, you’ll read the headlines and just think it is what it is.
JILL: I think that’s important. I think you said it just right there: If you don’t know your history. If you’re not tuned in, you’re gonna miss things that are being said.
JILL: Because it’s so much a part of our language and our vernacular that’s used again and again and again, whether it’s media or politics or anything.
JILL: And it’s so ingrained. Your voice, other people’s voices, are so important because we have to jog something—
JILL: —to start paying attention differently, to start listening differently.
KEITH: Right. What is it they say: People don’t hear to listen. People hear to respond. So, they’re not listening to what we’re saying. They’re listening to find something that they can leapfrog off of their point. ‘Cause again, and now, here’s the crazy part, talking about the Disability world. That thing about whiteness is just as pervasive within the Disability community, which is even more insidious and just insane to me. It’s like bruh! How you racist, and you using a sip ‘n’ puff? Right?!
JILL: Yeah, racism and ableism do not discriminate.
KEITH: Thank you!
On the night Donald Trump got elected, I was in Wisconsin at a DD conference, and I remember going upstairs with the conference organizers, good friends. And we were laughing ‘cause they were struggling to watch the election. I said, “What are y’all so upset about?” Older white women, about five or six of them, standard, late-40s, mid-50s people who work in Disability, and they were like, “No, there’s no way.” I’m like, “Do you not know the country you’re living in?” “There’s no way.” This is America! And he’s talking to white people in America. And y’all love being white more than you love being women, more than you love God Himself. You love your whiteness. And you are so protective of your whiteness that even your son or daughter who may sully your vision of your whiteness, you will disown them. That’s been the history of whiteness in America. That doesn’t mean that every white person is like that. Because when you go here, you were Italian; you weren’t white. You were Italian. ‘Cause when the next batch of white folks came in, then y’all became white because they were Irish. When the next batch came in, the Irish were white. So, the concept of whiteness is very fluid depending on who. And if your last name is O’Brien, nah. Moving on. Bruh, yo ass got here because of a potato famine, and they called you “Irish Niggers.” What? You want to see the sign? No Asians, no Negroes, no Irish. But you get to blame them because if your last name is O’Brien, you can change it to Smith. My last name is Jones. You can’t get no whiter than that. I can change it to Smith. Still gon be Black, [laughing] right?! So, it’s understanding the subtleties of how people move.
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JILL: Yeah. Where did your pride in your Blackness and your Disability come from?
JILL: What do you attribute the origins of that to?
KEITH: My mama and my family. But in terms of the disability, I think I would say I think where I am now is I travailed a lotta courses of oh, you know, you hit puberty, and you like a girl. And then the one reason she don’t wanna date you is because of the one thing you can’t change, you know? Having that kinda scar and being one of three sons born in a very interesting— We’re not triplets, but we’re all born like August, September, December. And outta those three, not being be the one attached to the parental unit because of out of those three, and subsequently the six, was the only one with a disability, right? So, you had the absentee father shit going on, whatever, whatever. But the pride came from I was never allowed to sulk! I came [laughs] I was 16. I came home, “[sobs] She don’t like me! She don’t like me ‘cause I’m crippled. I have a disability. [sobs]” My mother just looked at me, was like, “No, she just don’t like you.” There was no mention of dis— Nothing! “No, she just don’t like you. You’ll be aight.” And so, it was always like anytime the disability came as a crutch or an ability to wedge it out in a negative sense was never allowed ever, ever, ever.
My grandmama would sit there and turn her hands over, and my grandfather, they would talk about sharecropping in Mississippi. And then my great-grandmama telling me about how her great-granddaddy had to used to sneak over to see her because they was trying to get him because he was a free Black man. And then to have that story of my great-grandmother’s great-grandmother remembering the boat ride over and telling that story. So, we knew everything historically, you know, the context and all that stuff. But the pride was like, duh. If somebody has to beat you down to strip your humanity from you in order for them to feel better? Let’s try that again. If they have to beat you down to strip your pride in order for them to feel better, then your pride is always intact. So, it’s sorta that kinda, you know. And then of course, you gotta deal with the social contract. Like man, in this society, crippled Black man, that means you were in a gang, and you got shot. That’s how you’re crippled. All of that. But the way I came out on the other end was because I had family that didn’t allow that to be a part.
And being born at the end of the ‘60s and, my mother and my step-father and all of their friends being the first serious wave of Black academics to be in the Ivy League schools. The stuff they used to talk about in the living room, I was like. When I was like 16, you know when your parents are talking. What? What the hell are these old people talking about?! The hell? Put on my EPMD, You Gots to Chill, duh dud duh duh, right?! [laughs] And then walk out. But it would be funny ‘cause me and my boys would be running in the house in the summer, and my mother and my step-father would be sitting in the living room talking. I ran by one day, and it was like, “Hey! What’s the Dred Scott decision?” My friend looked at me and was like, “What?!” I was like, [sighs], and I had to answer the Civil Rights question about what is the Dred Scott decision from the Supreme Court. “What’s Plessy versus Ferguson? What is Brown versus Board of Ed?” Like that was, “Who’s Ralph Ellison? What is the term ‘invisible man?’ What is Ebonics?” All of that stuff was around.
So, I was fortunate that my mother was mother was a professor, my step-father was a professor, and then my grandparents and my entire family. ‘Cause remember, Missouri is the northernmost Confederate state, and St. Louis is, I would contend is, probably one of the worst cities to be Black in because it’s a benign racism. Like we grow up understanding that anytime, anywhere you hear, “Yeehaw!” that we can defend ourselves. But in the end, they’re gonna just overwhelm us with the fact that they have police, mayor, district attorney, judge. And all of them have grown up thinking my skin is a curse, that my skin, because of the Bible has given them superiority over my life. They found a passage about Noah on Mount Ararat being drunk and being laughed at by his sons, which then caused them to be stricken with black skin. Hence, a curse. It’s the craziest thing that’s in the Bible. It’s a weird concept. It’s weird. I gotta go back and get the exact ‘cause I’m paraphrasing. But that’s, so it’s sorta like when they built the Tower of Babel, that the curse of trying to raise the Tower of Babel up, God struck down those people, scattering them to the, which is why you have the various languages on earth. So, if that’s your pinnacle, and that’s what you’re leaning on, “Oh, well, these Negroes are savages anyway. And when we showed up with our [chuckles], with our perfume funk and our muskets, and they were throwing spears and hunting and wearing loincloths, clearly they’re savages.” Versus maybe their environmental conditions allowed them to be loosely-clothed and more agile. See? Your intellect is not attached to your ethnicity.
That is how the pride sits now, and it’s really not hard to be OK. And there’s a difference between having a belief and having fact, right? Because I can believe anything and be absolutely committed to it and it be completely, factually baseless. Like the old terminology: don’t drink the Kool-Aid, right? Jim Jones was this and had all them people line up and drink the Kool-Aid. And that’s sorta how we are dealing with Donald Trump. Donald Trump is a fat, bullied person and a less slick version of Jim Jones or David Koresh, and in some weird senses, L. Ron Hubbard. Because you have a group of people who have submitted to your belief and your will and have abdicated their own and supplanted it with prescribed programmatic gestures, thoughts, beliefs. Hence, hey! Who is Joe Biden gonna pick for running? If he picks Stacey Abrams, all the Negroes will go, “Hooray!” And we will run to Joe because Jo picked a Black woman. You know, ‘cause he’s cool with Obama.
[atmospheric music plays through next few lines]
JILL: [laughs] So, I could listen to you all day.
KEITH: Oh, well, thank you.
JILL: Keith, I’m really thrilled to meet you.
KEITH: Nice to meet you too!
JILL: And I look forward to getting to know you better.
KEITH: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.
JILL: Thanks for listening. Be well, keep your distance, send us your comments, questions, and your submissions for Oaklee Thiele to hello@DisArtNow.org. Please make sure to follow the My Dearest Friends project on Instagram, Facebook, and DisArtNow.org. And thanks again to the Ford Foundation for their support of this work and to cat enthusiast Cheryl Green for the transcription of this podcast episode.
Music: “Longevity” by Rest You Sleeping Giant. (Source: freemusicarchive.org. licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.)