Theorizing Disability
2005 NEMLA Meeting
Cambride, MA
01 April

Heather Hewett
Pace University

Trickster, Gatekeeper, or Crippled God?   Reimagining Esu-Elegba in a Disability Studies Framework



Do not cite without permission of the author.

Religion has not always been kind to individuals with disabilities.   Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, the disabled have alternatively been viewed as blessed or damned¡Xthe ¡§defiled evildoer or the spiritual superhero,¡¨ as Nancy Eiesland puts it¡Xneither of which adequately captures the daily reality of living with a disability.   In The Disabled God , Eiesland argues for a reinterpretation of Christianity that centers disability in both its theology and its church.   But what of other religious faiths and traditions?   How do they represent the relationship of disability to the divine?  

Within African-inspired beliefs, the Yoruba spirit of Esu-Elegbara is a crippled figure with one leg in the human world and one in the spiritual realm, an incarnation of the contradiction that those who seem weak are actually strong.   As a trickster figure who guards the crossroads, Esu embodies indeterminacy and ambiguity; and throughout the African diaspora, Esu appears under different guises, such as the old and enfeebled Papa Legba in Haiti, and the double-headed Pa Pa La Bas in the U.S.   Yet few scholars have explored Esu from a disability studies perspective.   Like Henry Louis Gates, who established Esu's importance as a trickster figure within African American literature, many critics acknowledge Esu's limp and explain it metaphorically, but leave it at that.   How might Esu change if we theorized his corporeality?   Does ¡§outing¡¨ him as disabled change our understanding of him?   How should we understand his disability ¡V as evidence that he represents a spiritual superhero who has nothing to do with the lives of ordinary individuals with disabilities, as an empowering example of a disabled god, or as something else entirely?   Finally, given the continuing importance of Esu for a wide range of contemporary writers and artists throughout the African diaspora and beyond, what do we make of his iconic yet unexamined status as a crip?  

In this paper, I explore these questions through examining some of Esu's appearances in a range of literary texts.   Building on Rosemarie Garland Thomson's suggestion that some of Toni Morrison's female characters, including Eva Peace in Sula and Baby Suggs in Beloved , are female versions of the trickster figure of Esu, I will explore the wider implications of this and other rewritings.   Looking at the work of writers as varied as Haitian American Edwidge Danticat, Haitian Marie Chauvet, Nigerian British Ben Okri, and Chicana American Gloria Anzald?a , I will explore how the multiple manifestations of this crippled god enrich and complicate current understandings of disability, religion, and narrative within the field of disability studies.