In what follows graduate student Rosa Martinez gives a brief account of the discussion of Professor Sue Schweik’s The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public that took place at University Press Book on September 8, 2009.
Our minds were on fire after hearing Susan Schweik’s discussion of her recently published book entitled, The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (2009).
The reading room at University Press Books was packed with faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates, as well as friends and scholars who contributed to the making of the book, and even interested bibliophiles of the community. Many found a place to sit on the stairways, footstools, and the floor, while others listened from behind bookshelves in the adjacent room – all eager to hear Professor Schweik introduce her new book about the history of the American ugly law of the late 19th and early part of the 20th centuries that targeted “unsightly beggars” in many cities across the United States. In fact, a history of law and “unequal treatment” that many people have never heard about.
“The issue of language and naming is what this book is about,” Professor Schweik began, and drew our attention to the story that inspired her study: the most recent implementation of the “ugly law” and documented arrest of a homeless man in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1974, because he had visible “marks and scars on his body.” “This law is the subject of my book,” she continued, reciting the ordinance that was first ratified in Chicago in 1881: “‘No person who is diseased, maimed, deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, shall expose himself to public view.’” She connected the absurdity of this law with the reaction of Omaha city prosecutors, in which a judge, whom Professor Schweik interviewed during her research, disagreed with the arrest and sarcastically asked, “‘Does the law mean that every time my neighbor’s funny-looking kids ask for something I should have them arrested?’” Although all charges were dropped and the man was released, Professor Schweik highlights the fact that a year before, an amendment to the law banned discrimination against disabled people, but here is an example of the law still in operation in contemporary societies.
Professor Schweik’s reading then explored “How the disability movement remembered and made a big deal about the law, and what was forgotten about it, and why it even existed.” She also discussed the intersections of the law with gender and sexuality, and, examined and contrasted the statute with other segregation laws, for instance the “law against cross-dressing” and the “law against prostitution.” Her enthusiasm and commitment to the subject powerfully resonated through the provocative stories and moving photos she shared, such as a portrait of the “man behind the handicap,” also known as Arthur Franklin Fuller, who was an author, poet, musician and composer in the early 1900s. But more, Professor Schweik’s passion turned contagious in the questions that propelled the writing of her book: “How do you know when someone is indecent?” she asked. “That history is what I’m telling. How to define who is indecent and how to grapple with that.”
The event concluded with a lively Q & A, filled with entertaining research-related stories about Professor Schweik’s rare archival findings – from creative writings to forgotten photos – and, stimulating conversation between the author and audience members who collaborated with her while the book was in progress, and finally, a book signing.
I must say, this same voice that set our minds afire at University Press Books, is tucked in the pages of her book – inspiring, revealing, and surprising!