‘Wheelchair work’

On a recent Sunday afternoon, while at a street parade, known in New Orleans as a ‘second line’, I follow behind life-long second liner Skelly Well, as he rolls his wheelchair to a sudden stop a few feet behind the brass band, pausing in the shadow of the sousaphone. The music is just right: the collective energy has begun to rise, and the two-lane thoroughfare is now transformed into the ideal dancing ground. Skelly leans his weight back and tilts his chair up on its wheels, beginning a choreography of spins and styled pauses, punctuating the brass band rhythm as his long and lean arms offer commentary on the melody. Francis, another second liner, has now rotated his wheelchair to face Skelly, and bounces his torso and shoulders in gesture towards him, bending at the waist and rising again in a creative groove. As they dance, second liners begin to shout encouragingly with a hip-hop tonal sensibility. ‘Work that wheelchair!’ they chant, ‘Work, work, work that wheelchair.’

Amidst the various fieldwork spaces that I frequent as part of my current dissertation research on paraplegia and spinal cord injuries as a result of gun violence in New Orleans – the rehabilitation hospital, the community organization, the clinic – the ‘second line’ parade affords a particular type of ethnographic insight, valuable for thinking through local contexts of health disparities and disability. In this temporary musical corridor, dance reigns as the lingua franca of the moment, and represents what Afro-diasporic dance and religious scholar Yvonne Daniel (2005) refers to as ‘embodied knowledge’ – a shared collective way of knowing imparted through expressive movement, which often contrasts or contradicts the ‘authoritative knowledge’ that is reified and reproduced in medical and political institutions.

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