When I began this project, I was originally interested in learning how policing has evolved and affected geographies of Black life in Fairfax County, Virginia– however, I shortly discovered that there was a lot of information regarding the policing of youth, particularly youth of color, and especially those classified as disabled throughout time. This led me to connect the ways in which disability and Blackness are woven together in Fairfax County Public Schools.
“Digital reconnaissance first calls on the use of digital tools to investigate African diasporic historic sites. In the investigation stage, traditional archival research methods are merged with open-source digital archives and databases, data visualization tools, and other free resources to gather initial data on an endangered or forgotten historic site... All of these data are then combined to amass an emerging digital archive that can be used to discover important themes and networks as they relate to a particular historic site.” (Pewu 2021)
Digital reconnaissance is known as the “technology of recovery”, with recovery being “the heart of Black studies” (Gallon 2016) because throughout time, those in dominating social positions of power have systematically worked to exclude, rework, rewrite, and bury the truths of those they have oppressed. In this project, I use digital recon to illuminate the interconnectedness of the histories of those classified as “disabled” and “colored” in 20th-century education and how this past continues to affect the present and future in Fairfax, as well as recover how these students’ education and futures were and continue to be affected by racist and eugenicist policies. To understand the American education system on a holistic level, we must first understand the influence that “race” has on what defines “disability”. Like whiteness, what constitutes a “person with a disability” bends, twists, and contorts as it benefits oppressive societal structures.
“If racialization is understood not as a biological or cultural descriptor but as a conglomerate of sociopolitical relations that discipline humanity into full humans, not-quite-humans, and non-humans, then Blackness designates a changing system of unequal power structures that apportion and delimit which humans can lay claim to full human status and which humans cannot.” (Weheliye 2014)
Understanding racialization in this way makes it easier to understand how disability is defined and shaped by the sociopolitical structures in place, which reflect the white supremacist structure that American society is built upon. As will be explained in further detail in the next section, race and disability are intricately tied together. In order to recover and illuminate the full aliveness of Black lives in Fairfax, it is helpful to recover and illuminate the full history of disability and racialization, education, and how/why exactly certain groups of people are deemed “worthy” of which types of education. Black studies are a “mode of knowledge production” (2014) that has been discounted throughout recent history, similar to disabled knowledge production. The way people with disabilities and racialized communities understand and move through life is automatically discounted and seen as unintelligent, which reinforces the beliefs that they are.
Digital recon is using the digital archive to understand the popular or “master” narrative portrayed in history through the voices of those who have been systemically neglected. Throughout history, like Black and brown people, disabled people have been portrayed as disposable and unworthy of our time, attention, and care as a society. Therefore, the traditional way people with disabilities are portrayed is as helpless, dangerous, lazy, and useless; which closely resembles the ways Blackness and Indigeneity is racialized. What I aim to do with this project is illuminate the various ways that disabled, Black, and brown people are anything but that, further revealing the ways it is a failure of us as a society that people classified in these ways are incarcerated, institutionalized, dehoused, and experience mental illness at higher rates.
“Underlying the notion of spatial fluency is the idea that all sites speak to something, someone, or some other site from the past, the present, or the site’s intended future and that traces of this language become inscribed into the physical landscape and the ways inhabitants interact with that landscape.” (2021)
Spatial fluency lets us know that the land that holds us also hold knowledge of the past, present, and future. By understanding how geography has played an active role in the oppression of others, we can “[perceive] both real and conceptual space and the past and the present simultaneously” (2021). This is of particular interest to me in this project because over time, spaces built by and for Black communities (like schools) slowly get taken over by whites and are then “repurposed” for the benefit of whiteness; for example, the decision to re-open previously all-Black schools as places for children with disabilities to learn after desegregation, only for them to face the same kind of poor funding issues that the Black schools had previously. These sites continue to experience the same history repeating itself, only by a different name. This project hopes to purposefully disrupt and expand the spatial histories in Fairfax County regarding disability and race by investigating 100 years of history in respect to special education to piece together a buried narrative which prioritizes the voices and lives of Black, brown, and disabled people throughout 20th century Fairfax.
With this in mind, in this project I use the digital archive as a “method of intervention to physically/ideologically remap” (2021) how we understand public schooling in Fairfax County. Searching through the archives, I understand why Pewu refers to this methodology as a “scavenger hunt” where “scant references become little clues to further investigate” (2021) because of the amount of double-backing, cross-checking, and re-discovering information I ended up doing. For example, early on in my research, I kept coming across articles that referred to “the race” without any extra context. After reviewing a dissertation written in 2007, I realized these articles were in direct reference to eugenics and were important to my project. Further, I would come across newspaper articles that would connect across decades of time, and after I was done with the archives and moved on to secondary sources, the connections between each would become clearer and clearer. Like Lenora McQueen who recovered Kitty Cary’s story, my aim with this study is to “subvert traditional historical narratives” (Shneider 2022) by shining a light on the connection between eugenics, racism, segregation, and special education in schools. The traditional narratives depict a very specific story about disabled, Black, and brown people that “secretly” align with eugenics and serves the school-to-prison pipeline as well as high incarceration rates in America. While the work done on the disabled community differs from that which is done to racialized people, city leaders did and still try to obliterate these voices for their own benefit in a similar manner. Using newspaper articles, school curriculums, and theory in “contrary purposes” (2021), I work to stitch together a buried truth; the individual and communal ways marginalized groups are affected in public education. My aim with this study is to seek redress and understanding of the disabled community in Fairfax, and specifically the unique needs of the disabled community of color, which have been historically denied, ignored, and neglected.