Waiting for you to stop staring, and see me.
— Crutches, Britney Wilson.
Britney Wilson stopped waiting a long time ago. These days if anyone is still staring, it’s usually in rapt attention after she delivers a reading of Crutches. _
One part rallying cry and one part scathing indictment of able-bodied ignorance, the poem has moved audiences to raise their hands in solidarity and weep.
Now if you haven’t seen her yet, you’ve been sorely missing out. For the past seven weeks, Britney’s been turning heads and raising fists as one of the stand out poets on HBO’s next generation answer to Def Poetry Jam, Russell Simmons Presents Brave New Voices.
The documentary series, narrated by Queen Latifah, follows spoken word teams from across the U.S. (including Britney’s Team, Urban Word NYC) as they build their rosters and prepare to go head-to-head in the nation’s capital, competing as part of America’s greatest poetry slam, Brave New Voices. Check it out the full-length first episode here and fall in love, just like I did. Go ahead, I’ll still be here when you get back.
I want to destroy all expectations because exceeding them would be too easy.
—Crutches, Britney Wilson.
As an African-American woman with cerebral palsy, and a proud member of those three minorities, Britney’s been destroying expectations since the day she was born. The 19-year-old’s resume goes way deeper than moving audiences at the occasional poetry slam. She just completed her freshman year at Howard University, pursuing her English degree on a full-ride, four-year scholarship from the Tom Joyner Foundation after beating out 2,000 applicants. In high school, she tutored both french and history. In her spare time, she sang in the Mama Foundation’s Gospel for Teens Choir and two hours a week, she was a teen health initiative peer educator for the New York Civil Liberties Union.
But, of course.
“I’ve been breaking down doors my entire life. People expect me to to be a certain way and then when they approach me and I’m entirely another way, they’re like, ‘What?'” she says.
Sometimes, it takes hearing her poetry for people to realize it’s okay to come talk to her. An experience familiar to many disabled people who “open minds” and “touch hearts” with perceptive insights. For me the exchange is always akin to an embarrassed dog owner trying to reassure a stranger that their pet is friendly.
“It’s okay, really, Britney doesn’t bite. She’s great with people.”
I don’t get it, and neither does she. “I don’t understand what about me would make you not want to talk to me, even if you haven’t heard my poetry. I don’t understand it, but I’ve learned people are surprised, or whatever the reaction is, people see people with disabilities in different ways.”
It’s this unease still washing over people’s interactions with disabled people that Britney wants to confront through her poetry. It’s the reason for everything, joining Urban Word, participating in the documentary, going to Brave New Voices and writing in the first place, it’s all to further the cause.
“Society accepts people with disabilities. I believe the opposite of acceptance is rejection. They don’t reject us. We have ramps and elevators. We have legally the rights that everyone else has. We have concrete acceptance, they know we’re out there, but they haven’t had to really deal with us yet, and that’s my goal, not just with poetry, but through everything. We need to be a part of the mainstream. I think society tries so hard to accommodate us that they don’t put us where we need to be, which is with everybody else. They’ve accepted that we’re different, but they haven’t accepted our similarities.”
Strong, but still weak, I’ve become so desensitized to my own daily life that it’s hard for me to bring my insides out, hard for me to express myself because I can’t protect myself when I’m exposed. —Crutches, Britney Wilson.
But before she could represent people with disabilities and share her poetry with the world, she needed to grow as a performer. She needed to drop that protective skin she built up as a disabled woman and learn to express her vulnerability on stage where its transformative power could be best channeled. This process was in part erroneously chronicled in the documentary series. They made the viewer think Britney was shy and the team was building up her confidence.
“I’m really a very confident, outspoken person, but I’m confident about things within my control, not so much things outside of my control. Disability, the way people respond to your disability, and the way people see you, is not something you have control over. It made me more open about talking about things that bother me instead of just writing them down. Now, I actually want to discuss them and try to make people aware because I realize now that there’s a difference between talking a lot and actually saying what you mean to say.”
She came to embody the quote above, and her teammates helped her to emote on a deeper level so she could connect to her audience.
“They were breaking me down to build me back up again because I’d gotten so good at dealing with [the disability] I became this composed, proper individual. They had to throw me back into the wilderness almost, so I could find my way back out.”
Now she’s more secure in herself and isn’t preoccupied with how she looks to other people. She’s free to be who she was meant to be.
I don’t have time to be that bleeding animal in the middle of the road, waiting for you to stop staring.–Crutches, Britney Wilson.
“A part of what makes me a poet is my expectation of the world is so high. I expect people to behave the way I think they should as decent human beings.”
That’s why her advocacy muscle was first flexed riding to school on the New York City special needs bus system, when she had to advocate for those disabled students who couldn’t do so on their own. The drivers didn’t care. They were simply, “getting the kids out of the house”, so they would show up at 8:45 a.m. for a 7:00 a.m. class. They would “forget” to tie down the chairs and it fell to Britney to keep them honest.
Though she’s certain she’ll always be a writer, she’s about to hang up the mic when it comes to spoken word. Her Voice needs to be heard in a larger arena, if more people are going to start to “deal with” the disabled population.
“Definitely, I want to be a lawyer because I understand that that’s the only legitimate way in American society to affect change. Our legal system is entrenched in everything that we do.”
For now though, she appreciates Brave New Voices and its ability to get her message out to the public in its rawest form.
It has been my life goal for some disabled kid to open up the newspaper and go, ‘Oh wow, I can do that because she did that.’ I feel like I didn’t have anybody to do that for me. When you’re a kid with a disability, you never see someone who looks like you doing something.”
Check your local listings for Russell Simmons Presents Brave New Voices on HBO Canada, or pick up the 7 episode DVD in September, just in time for ‘Back to School.‘