Category Archives: Reading with My Ears Book Review

Ever Lee Hairston Shares er Ambitious Life Journey of Blindness

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Reading with My Ears Book Review

The first time I heard about Ever Lee Hairston was several years ago when I read the book The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White by Henry Wiencek. In this depiction of two large families; the author wrote about an incident at a family reunion. Ever Lee called out the white Hairstons for how they mistreated her family who were sharecroppers on the land for many years. I remember thinking how bold this blind Black woman was to do this in this large crowded room full of people. However, she was spot on to say something because the white side of the family had profited for so long while her family lived in poverty. Second time her name popped up was while listening to a favorite podcast, called The Nod. She was being interviewed about her live. Then the third time was another podcast by Freedom Scientific sharing her life once again but this time including her published book. After running into this lady three times, I told myself this was no coincidence and that I needed to read her book to get the skinny on her life.

I found it in audio at the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled and finished it last week. The book is titled Blind Ambition: One Woman’s Journey to Greatness Despite Her Blindness. I was interested in her life story because I don’t come across many blind Black women   who have documented their life. The only other time was when I read about Haban Girma. As I read her story, I pulled out four core areas Ever lee was ambitious about: her education, career, marriage/family and the National Federation of the Blind.

Ambitious about Education

Ever Lee grew up in the segregated south on the Coolemee plantation in Mocksville, North Carolina. She is the third of seven children. Her days were filled with school and picking cotton. She realized from an early age that sharecropping was not the life she wanted to live. It was hard physical work. She was fearful of snakes and her family had little income. She had a desire to become a nurse because one of her sisters was constantly ill. She knew her parents had no money for college so being the ambitious person she was, Ever Lee came up with a plan. She heard about work opportunities up north and during the summer she worked as a live-in maid to save money for school. During this entire time Ever Lee struggled with her vision. She knew something was wrong but was not sure exactly what as she didn’t go to an eye doctor and never told anyone because she was ashamed. All through college, living with her aunt and uncle, and working as a live-in maid Ever Lee kept her vision problem a secret. This caused her to struggle through school because she couldn’t always see the chalkboard, her printed books or exams. When it was time to take the nursing exam, she failed the eye test portion. She was deeply disappointed but pressed on and got her teaching degree instead.

Ambitious About Career

Display of NLS Player Cartridges and Earbuds

Ever Lee was ambitious about her ability to be employed. She shared an incident where she applied for a position and got the interview. She dressed professionally, showed up on time with resume in hand but when she arrived it went downhill. The employer told her they had never hired a blind person before and she left disappointed. I also had a similar experience which happened shortly after I lost my vision. I went in for an interview and the first thing said to me was, “Oh, I didn’t know a blind person would apply for this job.” When that was said I knew, Like Ever Lee, I wasn’t going to get the job. That one statement spoke volumes about what that employer thought about the blind even though I was qualified for the job.

But like me Ever Lee pressed on and found a more opened-minded employer who not only gave her a job but helped her advance her career. She worked several years as a teacher and then later as a counselor at the Department of Health and Human Services. I worked for DHHS too when I was in high school and my first year of college. I was not blind at the time but I did have a blind co-worker, another one with cerebral palsy and a supervisor who used a wheelchair. Like Ever Lee this experience was rewarding, self-affirming and built my self-confidence. It also helped me when I went blind because I was able to pull from the experience to help me make it through.

Ambitious about Marriage and Family

Initially Ever Lee was hesitant about pursuing dating and romantic relationships because she was fearful her blindness would be exposed. She didn’t date in high school or college. She had been keeping it a secret the majority of her life.  But she did ultimately let go and fall in love with a guy and marry him. The relationship didn’t last because he was gaslighting and cheating on her. She realized this and took her son and left. She figured out what to do, got her career together, purchased a home and eventually met another man she married. When that marriage ended from abandonment, she still kept going. I have to appreciate Ever Lee sharing these intimate details of her life. failed relationships are hard to deal with and being public about it takes courage. Also, I admire the fact she shows them as just relationships where blindness is not the center. Many times, I have had to address the question/concern about my disability in a relationship as if it is the most important thing when so many other factors make up a successful match.

Ambitious About National Federation of the Blind

After years of struggle and disappointment, Ever Lee finally got a proper diagnosis. She was told by an eye specialist that she had a genetic eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP). She was also told that it would probably get worse over time. Ever Lee’s vision did get worse and for a long time she relied on others to help. Or she “faked it to you make it.” While Ever Lee worked at DHHS she learned about more services for the blind. She got a call from the National Federation of the Blind inviting her to attend   their convention. Her aha moment came when she was offered an agenda in braille/large print. By this time, she could no longer read print and she didn’t know braille. This is when Ever Lee knew she needed more blind skills. So, she took 6 months off from work for vision rehabilitation training. She had already been using a white cane but needed more education on how to live an independent life as a blind person. I could relate too. I also took off from work for about a year to go through a similar program for the same exact reasons. Attending the convention and emersion in her training was the beginning of Ever Lee’s full involvement in NFB. After that she became an active member, advocate, mentor   and later joined the national board of directors. After losing my vision I also got deeply involved in the disability community. First, I became an advocate, then later public educator. Today, I am a writer and blogger on the topic of blindness.

African American Slavery and Disability in the American South

African American Slavery and Disability Book Cover

Reading with My Ears Book Review

For many years I have been curious about the life of the disabled slave. My first exploration was learning about Blind Tom, the Georgia slave who was never emancipated. But that was not good enough and I wanted to learn more. Through digging a little deeper, I found a book at one of my favorite libraries, Bookshare.   The book is titled, African American Slavery and Disability: Bodies, Property, and Power in the Antebellum South, 1800–1860 by Dea H. Boster. The summary says that, disability is often mentioned in discussions of slave health, mistreatment and abuse, but constructs of how “able’ and “disabled” bodies influenced the institution of slavery has gone largely overlooked. This volume uncovers a history of disability in African American slavery from the primary record, analyzing how concepts of race, disability, and power converged in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The book was different than others I have read on slavery because it seemed more academic in tone but I thoroughly loved the historical context and the numerous real examples of disabled slaves. The book is broken down into three parts: Bodies, Property and Power.

Part I Bodies

This book shows slavery as a disability in and of itself. I never saw slavery in that light before but as I read the book the more, I saw what the author was saying. When you think of the word disability it means lack of control of a particular bodily function and the slavery of African Americans reflected that. One side said that slavery was best suited for African Americans because of their mental and physical state but then the institution of slavery debilitated them as well. Normal was viewed as controlled, healthy, moral, male and strong whereas disabled was viewed as the total opposite. Disability was considered a mark of dishonor except from war wounds.

Disabled slaves were used as the poster children to help eradicate slavery because many of the slaves became disabled from cruelty not from birth. Abolitionist used the testimonies of disabled slaves as part of their programs against slavery. Slaves would share about floggings, attacks by blood hounds and other bodily harms that caused them to become disabled. They would display their bodies during presentations or testimonies.

Another point under the part about bodies is that disabled slaves didn’t look at themselves as others did. Disability could come from mental, physical and sexual abuse. It could also come from unsafe work conditions, meager food and clothing, repetitive stress and punishments for infractions. They didn’t see themselves as week or useless. Much like today people with disabilities don’t see themselves the way society does. We view ourselves in a positive light and feel we have much to contribute. Disabled slaves would exhibit endurance and transcendence which was displayed in animal folktales. These stories displayed a weaker or powerless animal using their mental wit to overcome the more physically stronger one, like in Br’er Rabbit.

Soundness of a Disabled Slave

masters evaluated the soundness of a slave by three things: ability to perform manual labor, face value as a commodity and individual health. A slave’s overall health was low on the list and disease didn’t factor in on soundness, but things like epilepsy could because of its unpredictability. Poor diet, lack of suitable clothing and shelter caused disability. Rheumatism and blindness were mention often as debilitating conditions. Whippings were a form of punishment and didn’t render the slave physically disabled but it did have psychological affects whereas a branding was to totally humiliate the slave. Proper medical attention was hard because of lack of knowledge by owners, lack of compassion, or lack of medical doctors to provide care. As a result, slaves relied on each other or a conjurer or root worker for natural healing remedies.  This was a part of the slave’s identity and resistance.

Part II Property

Disabled slaves were sometimes labeled useless because of their inability to perform at peak levels. Their monetary value was decreased, or not able to be fully controlled or disciplined by their masters. Disabled slaves performed duties such as cooking and other house duties, nursing, child care, gardening and watching livestock. Owners wanted to get the most out of their slaves as humanely possible but slaves could negotiate as to how much of that labor, they could actually perform. You might think that duties of disabled slaves were light and less strenuous than an abled bodied slave but that is not true. For instance, the work of a cook was one of the most laborious because they had to rise early and stay late, prepare lots of meals, grind meal and gather firewood. Watching small children was also hard work for a disabled or elderly slave. Children ranged from small infants to 5 years old and a slave could be responsible for many children at one time.

Some disabled slaves were hired out and also learned specialized skills or trades because it made it easier on the body. If a disabled slave worked as a tailor or shoemaker, they could find some relief and still be found useful. The contributions that disabled slaves made on the plantation were important but owners viewed them as useless. This was evident in their printed records, journals, insurance policies and other documents. Unfortunately, this perspective still holds true today. People with disabilities add value and contribute greatly but mainstream society doesn’t always see, acknowledge or reward it. We are seen as less than and devalued solely based on our disability and therefore treated as such.

It was documented that some owners showed benevolence to their old and disabled slaves by allowing them to stay with their families as they aged and debilitated. But according to the author these examples are rare.   Disabled slaves received abuse and punishment just like abled bodied slaves. The most common was not completing an assigned task or duty. The idea of reasonable accommodation in the workplace was not a concept in the arena of American slavery.  Owners didn’t always take into account that a disabled slave would perform at a slower rate or that the task might be more difficult or complicated to do.  So, if a task was not done, regardless of disability punishment would be delivered. Depending on the degree of punishment some slaves died as a result. One would consider this murder although owners did not. Besides punishment disabled slaves suffered neglect. Many would get reduced food rations, no new clothes or poor shelter. Some slaves were even abandoned to fend for themselves getting no assistance from family or the slave community.

Disabled slaves were also used as part of medical experimentation.  According to the author the most well-known procedures that were done were on slave women. It was understood back then and even today that African-Americans feel less pain making them better candidates for medical experimentation. Doctors would perform surgery without anesthesia, test remedies and use disabled slaves in medical hospitals and schools for educational purposes. These were ways that an owner could recoup the cost of a disabled slave since the slave couldn’t perform hard manual labor.

Documenting Disability  for Estate Planning and Sale

Since disabled slaves were property it was important for owners to document their disability for estate planning and sale. Owners had to walk a fine line with being honest about a slaves mental and physical condition but not sharing too much or the slave might not be saleable.  They were documented in slave records with their particular kind of disability or if they were aged. Records would show slaves labeled as “gets fits”, “blind in one eye”, “hand injured”, “old Betty” or Old John”. They also gave them names of endearment such as “uncle” and “auntie” to indicate that the particular slave was aged. At the time of sale slaves were thoroughly examined to help determine retail value. Tests for hearing, eyesight and physical movement were performed. Slaves were required to disrobe to inspect their bodies for burns, scars and injuries. Scars from whippings were scrutinize more severely as a sign of a difficult or unruly slave. Bad teeth were a sign of poor health. Slaves were asked questions about their overall health and disability along with the examination. Owners would give a guarantee or warranty of health during the sale but, of course, there was no true absolute guarantee that a slave was totally healthy or sound.

To prepare a disabled or older slave for sale many owners would go through great lengths of disguise. Grey and white hair would either be plucked out or colored black to create youthful appearance. Scars, urns and injuries were greased over. Slaves were strongly encouraged and/or threaten to answer questions quickly, cheerfully and with a smile on their face. Some slaves were given large portions of food prior to sale and/or better clothing to wear. Slaves were aware of the transaction taking place in their sale and sometimes would hide or embellish their disability if it would help prevent their purchase, punishment or separation from family. One thing I found interesting    about this whole thing is that disabled slaves saw the lower value placed on them as a benefit because if ever it came time to purchasing their freedom, they knew the price would be more obtainable than an able-bodied slave.

Part III Power

Many times disabled slaves would use their disability to negotiate or manipulate their bondage. They were not totally powerless. By over exaggerating their condition the slave could get out of hard or uncomfortable work duties while still being in good favor with their owner. Many owners relied on medical doctors to help treat their disabled slaves. They did not rely or trust their slaves with the diagnosis of their medical condition. This feeling was mutual as slaves would sometimes hide their physical ailments and seek treatment among themselves. . .  Regardless doctors treating disabled slaves on a plantation was quite a lucrative business. Doctors could make multiple visits and administer various remedies, surgeries or treatments.

Some owners decided to forgo medical attention for their disabled slaves and allowed the condition to linger for months and even years.  It was directly connected to the financial value of the slave. The relationship between the owner, doctor and slave was a complicated one. Owners wanted their slaves cured and back to work. Doctors wanted financial compensation, good reputation and remedies that worked. Slaves wanted relief from pain and suffering. Yet many times these outcomes didn’t always happen in the way that was satisfying for everyone.

Another aspect of disabled slaves’ power on the plantation was faking or malingering their disability. A slave could embellish their pain or discomfort, tipping the scale to their advantage. Female slaves were more likely to fain their medical condition because it was directly connected to their reproductive ability. As a result, owners and doctors took their pleas of pain more seriously. Female slaves might complain of menstrual pain. She might fain repeated miscarriages to gain sympathy, lighter work load or more food rations. Additionally, a female slave’s ability to reproduce was directly connected to the soundness of the plantation and its owner. If a female slave was treated well by her owners then there would be no reason for multiple miscarriages or abortions. In some extreme cases a slave would intentionally injure or mutilate themselves to become disabled to get out of work, prevent a sale or removal from family. All of this was an important method of resistance however small.

This Was an Emotional Read

This was an incredible book and it took me a minute to read through it. I got quite emotional as I read the various examples of disabled slaves. My feelings ranged from distressed to anger to amazement. Slavery is a difficult topic already but reading about disabled slaves was even more trying. But I have no regrets because I took this journey willingly and am glad for it. I am grateful  for their examples of strength, endurance and resistance.

Being an Introvert Helps Me Survive COVID-19

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Reading with My Ears Book Review

Although a vaccine for COVID-19 is on the way this pandemic is not over by a long shot. There are still a lot of unanswered questions that we have to deal with. As for me I am trying to learn as much as I can about the vaccine. I am still wearing my facemask. I am still practicing social distancing and sheltering in place. This all leads me to something very interesting I have learned about myself over the past year. This new but old discovery is that I am an introvert. I sort of kind of knew this about myself for awhile yet when this pandemic struck and we had to shut down I found myself really being okay with it. Don’t get me wrong, I do have my days when I get a little squirrely but for the most part, I am fine with being quarantined at home.

I spoke to a fellow blogger, Steph McCoy over at Bold, Blind Beauty, about it. As I shared my thoughts and feelings, she commiserated with me and recommended a book for me to read that would help me figure some things out. Of course, I am a book lover and at home, so I got time to read, right? This was right up my alley.  So, I downloaded the audio version of The Introvert Advantage: Making the Most of Your Inner Strengths by Marti Olsen Laney and got to learning more about myself.

Summary and Goals of the Book

Before I share with you some of the key points, I gathered from the book, let me give you a quick summary from Bookshare. “At least one out of four people prefers to avoid the limelight, tends to listen more than they speak, feels alone in large groups, and requires lots of private time to restore their energy. They’re introverts, and here is the book to help them boost their confidence while learning strategies for successfully living in an extrovert world. After dispelling common myths about introverts-they’re not necessarily shy, aloof, or antisocial–The Introvert Advantage explains the real issues. Introverts are hardwired from birth to focus inward, so outside stimulation-chitchat, phone calls, parties, office meetings-can easily become too much. The Introvert Advantage dispels introverts’ belief that something is wrong with them and instead helps them recognize their inner strengths-their analytical skills, ability to think outside the box, and strong powers of concentration. It helps readers understand introversion and shows them how to determine where they fall on the introvert/extrovert continuum. It provides tools to improve relationships with partners, kids, colleagues, and friends, offering dozens of tips. Finally, it shows how to not just survive, but thrive-how to take advantage of the introvert’s special qualities to create a life that’s just right for the introvert temperament, to discover new ways to expand their energy reserves, and even how, when necessary, to confidently become a temporary extrovert.” After reading that detailed summary, I knew this book was for me and was a great suggestion from my friend. Now that I have finished the book, I am ready to share the little gems I learned with you about being an introvert and how it is helping me survive COVID-19.

As I was reading there were three goals the author wanted to achieve:

1. Determine if you are an introvert or not

2. How to understand if you are

3. How to nurture your valuable introversion

I Am an Introvert

After reading through the first couple of chapters I realized pretty quickly that I am an introvert. Some of the characteristics are that we have ongoing dialogue with ourselves; and we think too much. Introverts walk around with lots of thoughts and feelings in their head. Yep, that me, especially at 3 a.m. in the morning. That is when I get my best writing and blogging ideas. Who knew?

Books on desk with cup of tea

I also realized that it probably started from my childhood. Funny how so many things in life come from when you are a kid. As I thought back to those days I remember before my siblings came along, I spent a lot of time alone and by myself. Playing solitary games and reading books. Two memories stand out specifically. The first memory was selecting toys from the Sears Christmas Wish Book that I could play mostly by myself. Some kind of way I already knew as an only child that I needed to do that. Second memory is winning the summer reading contest in the 6th or 7th grade and feeling bittersweet about it. I was glad that I won but sad that I had time to read all those books. I realized   that I needed to spruce up my life with some other activities besides reading.

Socializing as an Introvert

I have even seen it in my friendships and romantic relationships. I enjoy hanging out with friends but only for a while then my energy starts to go down. Before the pandemic if I was at a get together, I would set a time for about an hour or two because that was about my limit. Not that I didn’t like the people I was with I would just get tired and want to go home. Now with the men in my life, I tend to date guys who are very outgoing and charismatic. I figure it’s that old saying that opposites attract. But sometimes it would get stressful and complicated because the guy I was dating was ready to roll but I was winding down. I would want a quiet night at home but he would want to hit the town.

I also noticed it with crowds especially after I went blind. I don’t care for large crowds anymore because of the sensory overload and sometimes I feel a little bit anxious. No large auditoriums. No mega stadiums. No large crowded and busy malls. Small groups work best for me. This has come in very handy during the pandemic because there is less chance of spreading the virus if I stay in a little group.

Even better if I stay home and that is what I have done the bulk of the time.

Working as an Introvert

A couple of years ago I made a career change and started working from home. I am a freelance writer and blogger–a quiet and isolating type of work life. I am self-motivated, set my own schedule and don’t need supervision. Unbeknownst to me this job shift complemented my introversion.  Then the pandemic came and we all had to stay home. So, I am reading online about people having to work remotely while I was already doing that. It was a lot of change for people and I felt empathy but I personally was not struggling with it. I began to question why and now I know why. Being an introvert has not only helped me with my overall career but also my blogging during this pandemic. I have written multiple blog posts about how people can successfully work from home. Many of those posts were ideas that came from my personal experience along with research and keeping up with trends.

Final Take Aways and Last Thoughts

The final take-aways are pacing myself and taking on extrovert skills. The last couple of chapters of the book were encouraging and reaffirming as they delt with self-esteem and self-confidence. It is okay to be an introvert. That there is nothing wrong with me and the way I move in the world. I really felt good about that because I have felt that my behavior was not always supported. The author took time to explain pacing and energy levels, how they work and how to restore them. I use to think that taking long naps and cuddling up in my bed to read all the time was a bad thing. But after reading this book I see that it is a part of being an introvert. That it is a part of restoring my energy levels and especially since I have a sleeping disorder. This is called nurture your nature.

But there are times when you will have to take on the skills of an extrovert. I have done that many times in my life. I have friends that would even argue me down with the writing of this post to say that I am not an introvert because I am so friendly, talkative and outgoing. Yes, those things are true but I do them because the situation warrants it. If I am at a gathering or event, I will get out of myself and engage with people there. I will not be a wall flower. I will put my best foot forward, smile and be a Chatty Pattie. I now realize that takes a lot of energy and that is why I stay for a short time and leave. When I get home, I go straight to the bed or sofa to rest. 

This book has been a confirmation for me. I can identify who and what I am. I am able to take better care of myself. As they say knowing is half the battle. Now that I know that I am an introvert I can use this to help me survive COVID-19.