The Souls of Black Autistic Folk, Part I: An Introduction to Paul Robeson

And here is
Paul, the man made out of crossroads, seven or eight men
in one body. Call him Othello if you like. He is
voice-colored and fist-worn with Jim Crow’s black feathers
plastered to his knuckles. He has a sixteen track mind,
almost drowned by man-made lightning. He was a
serif font road sign: Poitier and Belafonte read him and
found their way to the stage. Here is Paul.
(an excerpt from my poem, “Tribe”)

I began this exploration of being African-American and autistic a few days ago by mentioning Paul Robeson, an individual where Black history and autism intersect. I had encountered the premise that Mr. Robeson had Asperger Syndrome in Norm Ledgin’s book Asperger’s and Self-Esteem: Insight and Hope Through Famous Role Models about two years ago and was immediately fascinated by it. While other African-American historical figures such as George Washington Carver and Benjamin Banneker are proposed to have been autistic, Robeson is the only African-American who to my knowledge has been analyzed for autistic traits using any sort of diagnostic criteria. And since my online journey began in late April 2010, I have noticed a distinct lack of the African-American presence in the online autism community. In an act of echolocation, I seek our presence to find, confirm, and perhaps reaffirm my own existence and reality as an African-American autistic. So Mr. Robeson, I have chosen you as my psychopomp for this journey.

Paul Robeson

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The Souls of Black Autistic Folk: A Prelude to the Journey

Last Friday was the beginning of Black History Month. Amidst what we will be hearing about it in February 2013 — which tends to be everything ranging from the celebration of African-American historical individuals and events to the usual question of why the shorter year of the month was chosen for this celebration — I will certainly be adding my own voice to the chorus of writers and bloggers.

In my case, I am fascinated with Paul Robeson — one individual where autism and Black history intersect. I first studied African-American history in high school through a (what was considered groundbreaking) semester-long class and found myself introduced to history I had never encountered before. It is where I was introduced to the Harlem Renaissance. It was where I began to explore poetry and where my love of the craft began to take wings through learning about Langston Hughes, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Maya Angelou. And I recall a brief mention of Paul Robeson — giant of stage and song and inspiration to the likes of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. Robeson, best known for his portrayal in the title role of Shakespeare’s Othello, is proposed to have been an Aspie by author Norm Ledgin in his book Asperger’s and Self-Esteem: Insight and and Hope Through Famous Role Models. Ledgin compares some of Robeson’s behavior with the diagnostic criteria in the soon-to-be-superseded DSM-IV and concludes that Robeson fits the criteria for an Asperger diagnosis.

This month, I’m going to explore Robeson — who he was an an artist and a person, and through the lens of Asperger’s. Robeson was born in 1898 and died shortly before I was born (January 1976). I wonder — and would like to explore — about the reality he encountered as an African-American autistic in the early part of the twentieth century, and how that reality compares to the reality I encounter today as a multiracial African-American autistic.

And of course, this exploration will lead me to related questions. I know I am not the only African-American autistic out there. In my journeys over the last three years I have encountered some wonderful individuals, including record producer and autism advocate Michael Buckholtz. Logic dictates that he, I, and the few other individuals I have met cannot possibly be the only African-American Aspies out there. The big question in this case is: where ARE we? Through a bit of exploration, I hopefully may find some general answers (while being careful to respect the privacy of those who cannot be “out”) this month.

I hope you’ll join me on this fascinating journey this month. Hold on tight. It might be one heckuva ride.

-Nicole

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In this series: