[Editorial note: This is the preface I was moved to write about the world-changing excellence that is Corbett OToole's new book, Fading Scars: My Queer Disability History. It is an indescribable honor to have had a small part in bringing this much-needed book to you. Love, Ib]
ONE ELDER IS A WHOLE LIBRARY
When I was in grade school in Portland, Oregon, I was lucky enough to be included in outreach activities by a coalition of local Native American tribes who made a practice of inviting children on field trips to traditional Potlatch events, to share between cultures. Like many cities in the US, Portland was constructed on ground—some of it holy —taken from a variety of tribes. While many people went to reservations in the middle of the eighteen hundreds, a relatively large number remained in the growing urban center, and helped give it the character for which it is still now known.
A Chinook woman told me I was bound to like fry bread, despite my idea that very few things were actually edible, and unlike myself, I rightly believed her. Then, having discerned my love of reading, she told me a much more important thing.
“Respect your elders,” she said, “And hear what they have to say. One elder is a whole library.”
This has stayed with me always, and it is why I became interested in epistemology, which has to do with how people know things, and what it means for them to know them, and what kinds of knowing there can be.
People can know by thinking, and also by doing, for example. The knowledge held by an elder is doubly powerful: elders have done the things, and also thought about them. More is written about this elsewhere, but what must be said here is that Corbett OToole was there in key moments of disability culture even before people had written that there is such a thing as disability culture and named it. She is also friends with other people who write about disability culture and history, and so knows in a lot of detail what she thinks about the things she has done and seen in many different ways.
This book spans decades, major events and topics, and comes from a point of view called “autoethnographic,” which is another word for writing about one’s own life in order to show larger culture to the reader. It is a memoir with educational purpose. It is from the horse’s mouth, as they say: a play-by-play written by someone inside the action, telling us what happened then and there.
Fading Scars is absolutely essential reading in courses of disability studies and provides an excellent voice to complement histories written by historians, who have access to other kinds of knowledge about our collective past. Karen Nakamura is right to say that this is not only to be read by students of disability culture and history, but also by everyone. As Kim Nielsen says in A Disability History of the United States, disability history is the story of our nation. And the future of disability history (and queer history) is the kind of intersectionality and coalition we learn about in these exciting pages.