Thinking about the word crip

Two weeks ago I was in the Bay Area to see the Sins Invalid show and soak up disability culture and hang out with a variety of friends. Among other happenings, I visited the “Queer Poetics” class at Mills College, which is where I received my BA in Women’s Studies 24 years ago. The students had just finished reading The Marrow’s Telling, and we had rolicking, smart, firey conversation. Themes that emerged were about how a poem is made deeper by multiple readings/meanings and how in the threesome of writer-text-reader, the writer doesn’t hold the trump cards.

It started when I read “And Yet” to the class. Several stanzas read:

North on Baldwin Road, I walk my everyday walk.
Bottom of the hill, a dog barks, boy yells, “Hey mister.
Hey mister. Hey mister.” We’ve traded names a dozen times.

Then “Hey retard. Retard. Retard.”
Schoolyard to street corner: words
slung by the pocketful.

Crip skin marked,
white skin not.

And then towards the end of the poem:

Crip skin,
white skin:
which stories
do I tell the best,
and which
rarely begin—
turn, flutter,
settle?

Several students read “crip” to mean “Crips and Bloods,” which lead to a branching conversation about multiple meanings, rather than working toward a single “correct” meaning. And someone asked about issues of appropriation, since many of the disabled people using the word crip are white. Are white disabled people misusing or stealing the word from a particular African American context? I left campus that night high on ideas, connections, what it means to listen to readers listening and using my work.

Out of this mix, I wrote the following post to the Queer Poetics class blog:

Notes on the word crip

I left the Queer Poetics class and Mills full of the poetry and politics of crip etymologies, appropriation, and simultaneity. I asked Rebekah [the teacher] if I could write a blog post to both thank all of you for our plentiful conversation and extend it.

I know where crip comes from in disability communities—the long histories of folks who have had cripple used against us. We have taken the word into our own mouths, rolled it around, shortened it, spoken it with fondness, humor, irony, recognition. And yet I can’t remember the first moment I heard the shortened, reclaimed version (nor, for that matter, the longer pain-infused original), when I adopted it as my own, started calling myself a queer crip. What are the specifics to this history and etymology? Who said it first in which spaces; how did it catch on; when was it first written down as a way of inscribing pride and resistance; how did it come to be passed from person to person over the years so that now I find myself thinking, “But didn’t crip just arise organically from disability communities, movements, cultures?” These are the questions to map out personal and communal etymologies that have very little to do with the Oxford English Dictionary, often thought of as the final authority on the history and etymology of English words.

At the same time I know close to nothing about the etymologies of Crips in gang culture and African American communities of Los Angeles. And so I went to Google, which of course can be the beginning of inquiry but rarely the end. I read several historical accounts of the founding and early years of the club, the organization, the social and activist network that became the Crips. There is a good handful of stories about where the name comes from. One story tells that it’s an acronym for “Continuous Revolution in Progress.” Another that it comes from an associative trail of names rich enough for a poem of its own—the Baby Avenues morphing to the Crib Avenues morphing to the Crips. A third that it comes from an old Asian-American woman reporting to the police that she had been mugged by young Black men who were carrying walking sticks and whom she called cripples or, in accented English, maybe crips. And there are additional versions beyond these three. Because I read these stories on the Web rather than learning them in community, I have no idea how each of them may be embedded (or not) in communal and personal etymologies rooted in specific neighborhoods, historical moments, and experiences of racist violence.

But what is clear to me is that both uses of the word crip have long community histories of their own. Neither have been appropriated, borrowed, stolen, misused. Disabled people, particularly white disabled people, who call ourselves crips aren’t twisting an African American history for our gain or pleasure. Black boys and men inside the Crips aren’t referencing a word loaded with ableism. The two uses, histories, and etymologies aren’t akin to white people wearing our hair in dreadlocks; trans people claiming their transness as a disability or birth defect in order to explain and create empathy for their embodiment; or non-Native peoples romanticizing, simplifying, practicing, and assuming ownership of Native spiritual traditions. Instead crip and Crips trace simultaneous etymologies.

What do we learn when we lay them side-by-side? What do they share in common, and where do they diverge? Who has bodily, community, political connections to both traces/words? How does gun violence and injury link the two? And finally inside a poem, what do we as readers and/or writers gain or lose by bringing all the histories and etymologies to bear on a single word or by making choices among them?

Thank you for a plentiful conversation that embraced my poems and spun off from them, leaving me with unanswered questions that demand my writerly attention.

Corbett said,

October 15, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

I am wondering if Anna Deavere Smith knows the story of the LA Crips naming.

E Leb said,

October 16, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

This reminds me of the complexity of histories and etymologies of freak that you talked about in Exile and Pride. Thanks for continuing to explore and hold the multitude of experiences that folks have.

Sasha_feather said,

October 17, 2009 @ 11:42 am

Very interesting post. I included a link to it in a link roundup at the access_fandom community about disabling language discussions.

Sarah Jeanne Lombardo said,

October 22, 2010 @ 1:01 am

I’m considering taking Queer Poetics next term and am excited and inspired by your post–because of both the depth and complexity of the discussions I have the opportunity to hear at Mills, and because of the wonderful women that have graded this campus, yourself included! I’m adding your blog to my feed now :)

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