by Pascale Joachim, ’23 (CLAS)
Tolonda Henderson is a PhD candidate studying Young Adult Literature with a focus on protagonists who are both Black and disabled. Henderson chose to look at this particular intersection because they noticed no one really has and is interested in how these characters challenge what we understand as ‘normal’ childhood development.
Henderson is fascinated with ‘developmentalism’, a term from Gabrielle Owens’s A Queer History of Adolescence. In this book, Owens differentiates development, which is change over time, and developmentalism, which is the way society expects people to grow. With this term, a white, cisgender, straight, affluent adulthood becomes the goal which not only devalues childhood but allows adults to disregard the humanity of children. Henderson is interested in if and how young, Black, disabled protagonists disrupt what adolescence is meant to look like.
Henderson used to be a Harry Potter scholar, which is what introduced them to YA literature. They became interested in the intersection of disability and adolescence after working on a paper on this topic, and decided to pursue a PhD in YA and Children’s Literature. At UConn, Henderson took a class with Professor Kate Capshaw called Black Girl Magic, but didn’t like how disability was handled in the texts they were looking at. “I got to thinking, like, why are all of the really good examples of disabled adolescent protagonists that I can think of white? Is it because my scale for judging these texts are tipped towards whiteness? Is it because Black protagonists just aren’t getting enough attention? Or are there just not enough of them?” Henderson thought this line of questions could lead to an interesting small scale project, until Professor Capshaw suggested they pursue this for their dissertation.
Henderson is also interested in ‘queer time’ and how this manifests itself in novels with Black disabled protagonists. Henderson explained queer time this way: “It’s messier than developmentalist or normative time. It allows for potentiality and possibility to be infinitely available at any given stage of life. It acknowledges that adolescents are people, not people in training. With this concept, adulthood is no longer this static thing.”
Henderson is curious about how all of these things interact with each other. There’s a noticeable gap in the scholarship and in the literature that explores this three-way intersection. Black disability studies primarily focus on adult lives and YA disability literature focuses on white kids. Henderson believes research like this is important because being able to apply a critical lens to narratives allows us to see what they’re doing and saying about the lives of real people. When asked about the goals of their research, Henderson answered, “I want people to feel seen. I can’t make everyone feel seen all the time, but I can help a particular population, one that I happen to belong to, be more present in the conversations scholars are having.”