How long can a husband who is going blind keep that fact from his wife? Can a Sighted Spouse Deceive Their Blind Partner Based on Vision Alone? Is it possible to commit adultery with a woman who is also your legal wife? What happens when the two meet and the truth is revealed? The book “Lady Folbroke’s Delicious Deception” by Christine Merrill addresses these questions and so much more.
Okay, you got the gist of this romance novel. Now, let me tell you why I absolutely loved reading it. And I am going to try really, really hard without giving away any spoilers because I want you to read and enjoy it too. So, here goes. The overall reason I loved the book was because of the blind antagonist, Adrian. I have read a lot of books over the years and rarely do I find a blind main character, especially one that is like a regular human being. Let me explain what I am talking about. Many times, people who are blind are portrayed in stereotypical ways. We are the super crip accomplishing huge feats that even sighted folks can’t do. Or we are like little angels that don’t sin or do anything bad. Or we are like Casper the Friendly Ghost hovering in the background like window dressing but have no real purpose or importance. Or we are asexual and either we don’t have/want sex or are not seen as sexually attractive. Are you getting my meaning now? I sure hope so because I am out of examples.
Struggles with Going Blind
So back to Adrian, the wayward husband. He abandons his wife and moves to the city. Why does he do this? Because he is going blind and can’t face the music. This is very realistic and true. Our society puts so much shame on becoming disabled. Many of us who go blind as adults have a real tough time dealing with it and then society, friends and family might not react well to the news. There is fear, shame and anger when you are going blind. This story was way back in the day and it wasn’t like he had a support group, therapist or someone to call who understood what he was dealing with. So, he ran away.
Then the next thing he did, which a lot of us in the blind community do, is Fake it ‘til you make it. Adrian acted like a drunken fool and spent time around unseemly people as a way to deal with his situation. He pretended he could see when he couldn’t. He avoided his true social connections, family and of course his wife because they would see right through his charade. He acted this way because he was depressed and saw no future.
Process Blindness in a Positive Way
But in other ways he was processing his blindness in a positive way. He had started to use a stick (official white canes would not be developed until much later) to travel and get around. He got directions and remembered how to get to places he had been to before his vision decreased. He was also learning how to use his other senses. Merrill gave several good examples of this with his smell and hearing. Even his sense of touch was explored with touching clothing and body parts. This is a romance novel after all! You got to have some sexy love scenes and they were displayed in vivid description.
He was also figuring out his food plate which is a huge deal for us blind folks. Certain foods I don’t eat in public, like spaghetti with tomato sauce. Just a bit too messy! He wrote letters with a special writing guide. I have one similar and used quite often in my early days of vision loss.
I appreciated Merrill’s focus on Adrian’s resistance to connecting to the blind school yet wanting to help blind people. I totally understood this concept. During that time, the school for the blind only focused on vocational training whereas Adrian was an educated man. He had also been in the military and was a lord. This school wouldn’t have worked for someone on his level. yet, when he came across a blind woman who was begging on the street he offered to help her beyond just giving money.
Wife Decieves Blind Husband
Adrian is my blind hero and why I love this book. But his wife, Emily was interesting too. Once she discovers he can’t see and doesn’t recognize her she plans to deceive him. On the surface this seems cruel. But remember he left her in the dust for 3 years and has been committing adultery. So, girlfriend is doing a little payback! Deep down she loves him and wants to help him regardless of his vision problem. Lots of times when a person becomes disabled the marriage can fail because adjusting is difficult. Many times, the disability reveals problems and issues that were already there and hadn’t been delt with in the marriage. Such as the case in this story.
This novel of love and romance is a real yet sweet one. It was published in 2011 so I am sure it is available everywhere. I found it at my local library as an audiobook and listened to it on my Hoopla app. For my blind and visually impaired friends, it is available through the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. If you are looking for a story with complicated characters that are not one dimensional with some drama going on along with hot steamy romance, this book is for you.
For years I have said little to nothing about the September 11th attacks. Keeping my thoughts and feelings to myself for the most part. Not because I didn’t care or have empathy for all the people who suffered and died. Not because of the seriousness of the attack and later our involvement in a war. Rather it is because September 11th was such a visual event and being totally blind I struggle to have a connection to it.
Let me explain what I mean. First of all, this is not a blog post about where you were when x y z b happened. It is more about how my blindness protected or kept me from fully participating in a national, universal experience. This event was one of the first times I realized how my blindness separated me from other people. That I was different. In some strange, weird way it protected or kept me from entirely engaging in the pure devastation of the day. I was removed from it because I couldn’t see it. I was not able to totally share in our collective grief and horror.
Lost Vision Right Before September 11th
My father had passed away a few years before and I had gone totally blind in 1999. So, it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with grief, pain and suffering. Losing my vision and only 2 years prior was a real traumatic event and not one to shrug off easily. Therefore, I felt that my feelings of sadness and empathy were there and available. Still, something was missing.
Can’t Visualize the Attack
My roommate at the time attempted to describe the event. I had no visual memory of the Twin Towers only the Statue of Liberty. She positioned my hands as two tall buildings standing side by side. Then she took one of her hands and pushed it into one of mine to simulate one of the planes crashing into one of the towers. Yet, after all of that I still didn’t quite get what was happening. How do I visualize two tall skyscrapers falling down? How do I understand people jumping and falling out of buildings to their death? How do I visually process a large airplane flying directly into a building? How do I visualize a building collapsing into itself? And then the huge cloud of debris and dust that went up into the sky coming back down to cover everything and everybody on the ground. I could not visualize any of this no matter how hard I tried.
Book and Podcast Finally Help
It was years later when I read the fictional book title “False Impression” by Jeffrey Archer where one of the main characters was in New York on September 11th. The author vividly described the scene and action. The character was in one of the buildings in the staircase coming down. She escaped only to get caught up in the cloud of debris. Then I got it! The buildings falling, the people jumping to their death, and the cloud covering people on the ground. Things began to make sense. And all from reading a fictional book years later! Who would have thought?
It happened again last year when I was listening to the Talk Description To Me podcast. They did an excellent episode on September 11th. They described the day but more importantly they described photos. The one that is sealed in my memory is of a Black woman, named Marcy Boarders, who was covered in so much debris it was hard to identify her race until she wiped her face. She was called the “Dust Lady.” She was just covered from head to toe. It was just that awful. I could actually imagine this beautiful and distinguished woman in her nice business suit coated in filth and dust. As they described her appearance my heart sank. I was deeply saddened for what she and many others went through. Then to find out later she died from stomach cancer was terrible. Again, I got it. The images really sank in and I understood the gravity of the situation although many years later.
Speaking Up at 20th Anniversary
Now, we are here at the 20th anniversary. After all this time I feel I can say something about this day and not feel so disconnected. I can join in on the conversation when people recollect and share their stories. Yes, my blindness did protect me but I do understand better what happened from a visual perspective. It has taken time but knowing this helps me to be more mindful, empathetic and caring to people who experience loss on this day.
Today in the disability community, we recognize the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In honor of this landmark civil rights legislation, I read an audiobook “Being Heumann: An Unrepented Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist” by Judie Heumann. She is a disability advocate and her actions played a vital role in the passing of this law. You might have heard of her more recently as she was featured in the 2021 Oscar nominated documentary Crip Camp that aired on Netflix. However, Judie is known much more than her role in a film. Penguin Random House summarized her story best, “One of the most influential disability rights activists in US history tells her personal story of fighting for the right to receive an education, have a job and just be human. A story of fighting to belong in a world that wasn’t built for all of us and of one woman’s activism—from the streets of Brooklyn and San Francisco to inside the halls of Washington—Being Heumann recounts Judy Heumann’s lifelong battle to achieve respect, acceptance and inclusion in society.”
Being Heumann Overview
Judie starts her story at infancy where she describes being paralyzed from polio at eighteen months and how her struggles for equality began early. She was labeled as a “fire hazard “because of her wheelchair as she fought to attend grade school. Her battles with the school system continued when she won a lawsuit against the New York City school system for denying her a teacher’s license because of her paralysis, where her actions set an example that ultimately improved rights for disabled people.
She continued to be a role model of activism and self-determination when she rolled her wheelchair through the doors of the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in San Francisco as a prominent leader of the Section 504 Sit-In. It was the longest takeover of a governmental building in US history. Judie and a community of over 150 disabled activists and allies were able to successfully pressure the Carter administration to implement protections for disabled people’s rights, igniting a national movement and leading to the creation of the ADA.
Different Backgrounds but Many parallels
I left encouraged after reading this book about Judie’s life. Although I didn’t become disabled as a child, am not Jewish or from the north and our disabilities are different, I did see parallels. I have worked several years at an independent living center. I have dealt with the struggles for inclusion and acceptance. I have felt shame or confusion when someone calls out my disability or ask intrusive questions. I have had struggles with accessing the basic things I need to live and work.
Fine Line of inclusion and Exclusion
I understood her point about walking that fine line of inclusion and exclusion. Judie shared an example of this when at church her mother didn’t want the pastor to carry her up the stairs to participate in the activities with the other children. Her mother thought it was too much and it would be a burden even though the pastor was okay with it. I could relate with this situation so strongly. It is part of the stress of my disabled life and not wanting to be a burden. It is about picking and choosing your battles. It is about not wanting to wear out your welcome. If I ask to many times, people will get tired and annoyed so I pull back and either don’t ask much or don’t ask at all, neglecting my needs in the process. It is also being in that vulnerable and precarious position of depending on people to be nice. If a person is nice about it then I feel okay to ask and move forward; if I sense some resistance then I pull back and don’t ask.
Focus on the Barrier Not the Disabled
One of the things I have learned about being a disability advocate and Judie also brings up in her book is the mindset we must have for the world to change. When she was pushing for Section 504 she and other activists had to help people understand it is not because you can’t walk that you can’t get into the building rather the building is not accessible. Changing the mindset and putting it on the barrier and not on the disabled person is the way of creating the change. For example, I wrote in a post about applying for jobs online and inaccessible sites. The answer is not for me to regain my sight or get a sighted person to help but to fix or create accessible websites that work with my screen reader.
Feelings of Being Ignored
Judie said when people ignore you, it is an intentional display of power. They act like you don’t exist and do it because they can. They believe that nothing will happen to them Ignoring people silences them. It avoids resolution or compromise. It opens feelings of unworthiness because it makes you feel that you deserve this treatment in the first place. In the end you are forced to choose whether to make a fuss or accept the silent treatment. If you stand up for yourself then you are viewed as aggressive because you break the norms of being nice and polite, which can make you feel worse.
OMG! When Judie said this, I was thunderstruck! What she said was so true and powerful. So many times, I have felt a loss of power as a Black disabled woman when I have been ignored by someone who didn’t want to deal with me. There would be times when I just didn’t have the energy or the resources to fight back. There have been times when I would regroup and try another approach but in the end being ignored really sucked! I would have to figure out other ways to reclaim my power and self-confidence.
It’s About Human Rights
Judie notes that people need to understand that Section 504 and the ADA was about civil and human rights for the disabled. Many people understand the fight for racial equality, or gender equality but when it comes to disability people don’t connect the dots. Many times, I have had to say substitute one of the other minority groups and replace with the word disability. Then people began to understand the struggle for equality. Judie said the basic logic in society is that people with disabilities won’t benefit as much from X, or Y or Z as much as people without disabilities. Therefore, X or Y or Z is not essential. They should accept the idea of going without. The same goes for transportation and employment. But what kind of logic is that really? The underlined assumption is that people with disabilities have less potential to learn and contribute. That we are less capable and not equal. Judie says the problem with this logic is that disability is part of the human condition. As we live longer more people will become disabled. What we should do is accept it, plan for it and build our society around it. Disability is coming whether we want it to or not. I totally agree and tell my temporary abled body friends this all the time.
I will end this blog on this profound point Judie made. We underappreciate our human rights in America. You won’t realize their importance until they are gone. These are such powerful words. Therefore, we must be constantly vigilant because our rights are precious. We can lose them. They can be taken away at any time.
Last month Mattel added the Helen Keller doll as part of their Inspiring Women Series. She is the 12th doll among the great women in the collection such as Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Eleanor Roosevelt and Susan B. Anthony. The doll is dressed fashionably in a skirt and blouse. She is holding a book with molded braille on the cover which the national Federation of the Blind provided help and feedback. The doll looks very much like her except for the eyes which has stirred up some controversy. It is said that Keller had unilateral proptosis, which is the protrusion of one eye. This condition resulted in asymmetrical looking eyes. She was often photographed in profile or at an angle to cover up this fact.
Why the Controversy
Now, you might be asking what is all the hype about? What is the problem? Mattel decided to make a doll based on an extraordinary disabled American icon. Keller was an author, political activist and lecturer. She was also the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She traveled all over the world. She met famous and important people. She fought for civil and human rights. She co-founded Helen Keller International, an organization initially for blinded WWI soldiers. She was outspoken and a feminist. She is inspiring and a great role model. So, designing a doll in her likeness sounds like a wonderful thing, right? Well, some say the issue is the doll is not accurate because her eyes look “natural” or “normal” whichever term you prefer. Some Disability advocates feel the doll should be a genuine representation of what Helen Keller really looked like. But I wonder about that.
Keller Took Portraits in Profile
Today is Helen Keller’s birthday and if she were still alive would she care the doll was not an accurate depiction? The reason I wonder is that she took pictures with her face not completely facing the camera. So that tells me she knew about her eyes. Maybe she was concerned about how they would look in a photo. Or maybe she was advised this was the best approach for a great picture. I have been there before myself. I have been told when taking pictures to adjust my smile and facial features. Sometimes I have been asked to remove my white cane from the shot and depending on the situation I do. It doesn’t mean I am ashamed of being blind it just means having my white cane in the picture is not always the best thing.
When Keller became an adult, she had her eyes removed and wore glass prosthetics. I also wear them too. They are ocular shells made of plastic. They are like large contact lenses laying on top of my eyeballs. My decision was totally cosmetic and a bit selfish. I just wanted to look and feel better. At the time I was wearing dark sunglasses because my eyeballs had receded and shrank making it hard for me to blink. So, it looked like I was sleeping constantly, and I was tired of my appearance and people questioning me about it.
In addition, I realized that wearing sunglasses, in some way, communicated to the world that I was ashamed of my eyes. The point was really driven home after attending a disability presentation called “Gawking, Gaping, Staring, Living in Marked Bodies” at Emory University. The presentation explored the history of how people with physical differences are treated in mainstream society. The presenter, Eli Clare, shared about how we must “cover up” our differences to be accepted. I realized that is exactly what I was doing with wearing the sunglasses. That night the shades came down both literally and figuratively. I was so deeply taken with this process I wrote a blog post about it called They Look So Real Wearing Ocular Lenses.
Creation of Barbie
Knowing the history of Mattel, I was not totally surprised with the creation of the Keller doll. I read a fascinating book titled Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her by Robin Girber. They were revolutionary in manufacturing Barbie. This doll was a real female with breasts, hips and thighs. During that time dolls were just round like balls and soft and cuddly. When Barbie came out parents were reluctant to purchase it, but little girls loved it because the doll allowed them to imagine being grown up. They could act like a real woman!
Explaining Disability Takes Energy
Critics said Mattel missed the mark and a teachable moment with the Keller doll. Keeping her eyes as they were would have been an opportunity to stay authentic and teach children about people who are different. Yes, I can see that, no pun intended. But I also see a doll with eyes that don’t look “normal” could be considered scary or uncomfortable to a child to look at or play with. Parents might not have the language to explain why the doll’s eyes look different. I deal with this stuff all the time as a grown woman, and it is hard. Constantly explaining my disability. How I live and move in the world. So, imagine a child? This is also partly the reason why many blind folks wear dark sunglasses. Getting back to what I said earlier when I wore them myself. We live in a world where differences are not easily accepted, and it takes a lot of work and energy. Sometimes you must decide how much of that energy you want to give. No judgement to my disabled readers. Also, it is about acceptance. Everyone wants to be loved and accepted. If “covering up” the disability will lead to that some people will do it. Or they might not want their disability to be a distraction or the focus. People just want to live and be.
Conflicted but Let’s Talk
I know this post might sound contradictory and all over the place. And it probably is. This topic is complicated in my opinion. It brings up many conflicting emotions for me. There is no quick and easy answer. However, one thing I clearly know, this doll has sparked conversation and that is a positive thing. We need to talk more and more about disability issues. Put things on the table and have open and honest dialogue. Push that big, loud pink elephant out of the room! Only then will we bridge understanding and acceptance. Then we won’t have to wonder about another doll and its representation of a disabled person.
Now, tell me what you think. Did Mattel miss the mark with this doll? Should they have created her with accuracy? If so, what do you think the reaction would have been?
When I was taking courses in journalism in college, I learned about women in the news but they were more modern-day women verses historical. Since March is National Women’s History Month, I wanted to honor some women that impacted the industry from the past. Some of the women are not as well-known while others are famous. Regardless, they left a mark on American journalism that is noteworthy because of their courage, self-determination and strength.
Published Stories on Lynchings
The first woman, Ida B. Wells, was a journalist I knew because of her bravery and doggedness in publishing the stories of lynchings. She was born a slave in 1862 in Mississippi. When the Civil War ended, Ida’s parents became politically active setting an example of activism and advocacy she would use later in life. They also believed in the importance of education. She became a teacher and moved to Memphis after her parents and one sibling died from yellow fever. Ida’s activism kicked off when she filed a lawsuit against a train car company in 1885for unfair treatment. She had been thrown off a first-class train despite having a ticket. Although she won the case locally, the ruling was later overturned in federal court.
After losing her teaching job Ida turned to journalism. In 1892 when three friends had been lynched by a mob, she began an editorial campaign against lynching. She was doubtful about the reasons Black men were lynched and set out to investigate several cases. She published her findings in a pamphlet and wrote several columns. Her exposure enraged locals, who burned her press and drove her from Memphis. Ida was passionate about highlighting lynchings that she traveled internationally. Abroad, she openly challenged white women in the suffrage movement who ignored lynching’s. Ida was often ridiculed and ostracized by women’s suffrage organizations in the United States because of her bold and fearless stance on the topic. Despite lack of support, Ida remained active in the women’s rights movement. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club which was created to address issues dealing with civil rights and women’s suffrage. Although she was in Niagara Falls for the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), her name is not mentioned as an official founder; but she later became a member of the executive committee. Disenchanted with their white and elite Black leadership, she soon distanced herself from the organization. Late in her career Ida focused on urban reform in Chicago. She died in 1931.
Poet and Journalist
The second woman was born shortly after the Civil War in New Orleans and later was actively involved in the Harlem Renaissance. Her name is Alice Dunbar Nelson and she was a poet, journalist and political activist. Her first collection of stories, poems and essays, Violets, and Other Tales, was published in 1895. She was married to the famous poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar and during their marriage she published a short-story collection, The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories. This collection was published as a companion piece to his Poems of Cabin and Field in 1899. The volume helped establish her as a clever portrayer of Creole culture. The marriage didn’t last owing to abuse and alcoholism from her husband yet Alice continued to move forward in her writings and romantic life.
Alice was involved in the Harlem Renaissance, even though she hadn’t lived in New York for many years since before her marriage to Paul and was still living in Delaware at the time. Her poetry, much of it written earlier, was rediscovered through its appearance in journals and collections like The Crisis, Opportunity, Ebony and Topaz. She was also a journalist and wrote a syndicated column, Une Femme Dit, and contributed a wealth of reviews and essays to newspapers and magazines. During the 1920s, she coedited the Wilmington Advocate, a progressive Black newspaper. She also published The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, a literary anthology. Although a successful writer, Alice spoke about her challenges as a journalist in her diary. She discussed being denied pay for her articles and issues she had with receiving proper recognition for her work. Her diary was published in 1984 and remains one of the few diaries of a 19th-century African-American woman. Alice died in 1935.
First to Receive White House Media Credentials
Alice Allison Dunnigan was the first Black woman credentialed to cover the White House, the Supreme Court, the State Department and Congress. Born in 1906 in Kentucky, Alice was a bright and smart student, and started writing for newspapers when she was only 13 years old. She began her career as a teacher, but wasn’t satisfied so took journalism classes and wrote fact sheets about information omitted in the school curriculum. Alice knew that to move forward she had to physically move so in 1935, she moved to Louisville. There she worked for Black-owned newspapers like the Louisville Defender. Next, she moved to the Capitol. Initially she worked for the federal government as a civil service worker but still had her eyes on journalism. In 1946 Alice’s ambitions were realized when she became a Washington, DC, correspondent for the Associated Negro Press (ANP), the first Black-owned wire service, supplying more than 100 newspapers nationwide. It was her ticket to covering national politics. She worked mightily on getting her press pass and was approved in 1947, and quickly acquired White House media credentials the following year.
Despite these major achievements Alice still dealt with racism and sexism in the work place. While covering President Truman and President Eisenhower, Alice experienced discrimination. She was one of three African Americans and one of two women in the press corps covering President Truman’s campaign. During her years of covering the White House, she frequently asked questions regarding the escalating civil rights movement. In 1953 Dunnigan was barred from covering a speech given by President Eisenhower in a whites-only theater and was forced to sit with the servants to cover Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft’s funeral. It was not until President Kennedy that she was recognized as a member of the press when asking questions. Under his administration, Alice began a new career as a consultant. President Kennedy appointed her to his Committee on Equal Opportunity designed to level the playing field for Americans seeking federal government jobs. After retiring, Alice self-published her autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. She died in 1983, and in 2013, was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame.
First to Have Comics Syndicated Nationally
The next woman started off as a writer but was best known as a cartoonist. She was the first Black woman to have her comics syndicated nationally across America. Jackie Ormes, born in 1911, used her artistic talent to remark on political and social issues happening at the time. Her portrayal of positive Black folks went against long held stereotypical and negative images. Her first strip in the Pittsburg Courier, Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, followed the adventures of Torchy Brown, a young ambitious Black teen who traveled from Mississippi to New York to pursue her dream of performing in the Big Apple. During the 1940s, Jackie worked as a columnist at the Chicago Defender and published her next cartoon strip, Candy, about a funny, hard-working and smart maid.
The Pittsburgh Courier published a new strip from Jackie after WWII called Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger. It centered around two sisters, Ginger, the older, stylish sister, and Patty Jo, the wisecracking, insightful little sister. The strip was so successful it ran for 11 years with more than 500 cartoons. In partnership with the Terri Lee Doll Company, Jackie created the Patty-Jo doll in 1947. This was the first nationally distributed high class Black doll that had real child-like features and an extensive, fashionable wardrobe. The dolls were extremely popular and the wish of many Black and white children. As the Civil Rights Movement grew, Jackie’s comic section was cut. She retired from cartooning and switched to painting. but later, Jackie had to stop painting entirely after developing rheumatoid arthritis. Still, she stayed active in the artist community through her seat on the board of directors of the Usable Museum of African-American History and Art. Jackie died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1985. She was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame in 2014.
Newspaper Owner and integrationist
Daisy Bates is a name I quickly recognized but not for her journalism background. Whenever I would read about Daisy it was her affiliation with the NAACP and how she advocated for integration with the Little Rock 9 in Arkansas. But before she got heavily involved in school integration, she married a newspaper man and they both ran the Arkansas State Press which focused on the need for social and economic improvements for the Black community. This paper became known for its courageous reporting of acts of police brutality against Black soldiers from a local army camp. Their persistence and drive in spotlighting these abuses led many white business owners to cease placing advertisements in their paper. Regardless of the financial loss, they continued to produce their publication. In 1959 they were forced to close the Arkansas State Press due to threats of racial violence. But Daisy reopened it in 1984 and sold it several years later. For many years Daisy continued her advocacy in education and civil rights involvement. For her work, the state of Arkansas proclaimed the third Monday in February, Daisy Gatson Bates Day. She died in 1999 and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom the same year.
All of these women had incredible stories of tenacity, strength and power. As I researched each one there was so much rich history on their lives, I struggled with featuring just the highlights because there was so much more than what appears in this blog post. These women were wives, mothers, sisters, friends and held other roles in their community. These women battled racism, sexism and all kinds of challenges as they tried to do their work as journalists. They were excellent examples and believed deeply in the power of the written word and its impact on their community and society. Journalism was not just a routine 9-to-5 job but a way to evoke social and political change. I can definitely relate and is also a reason why I chose journalism and why I wanted to recognize them this month.
This month is Women’s History Month and I discovered an interesting woman that fits nicely in this category. She is truly a historical figure and did incredible things during her lifetime that not many women were doing. She was also visually impaired and later became an advocate for the blind. I first learned about her while watching a documentary on PBS. It was a short clip that I viewed on my smartphone. After that I was sold! I had to go and do my research to find out more on Sonora Webster Carver. Then of course, I had to share on Triple E because you know that is how I roll! HaHa! So, get ready to read and learn about this fascinating blind woman who literally dived horses successfully in tanks of water.
Now, let’s start at the beginning. Sonora was born in 1904 right here in Georgia. She grew up with a restless mother who moved the family around a lot. Sonora had a lifelong love affair with horses, cutting high school classes to ride, even though her family never had their own horses. In 1923 she answered an ad placed by William “Doc” Carver for a diving girl and soon earned a place in circus history. It was her mother who first encouraged her to consider diving for Carver’s act, which was in search of a new “Girl-in-Red,” when she was 19.
She was a good rider, but nothing in her experience prepared her for diving. Her assignment was to mount a running horse as it reached the top of a forty or 60-foot tower and sail down on its back as the horse plunged into a pool of water below. After rigorous training She became an immediate hit and soon was the lead diving girl for Doc’s act as they traveled the country. Later, Sonora fell in love and married Doc’s son, Albert (Al) Floyd Carver in 1928. Al had taken over the show the year before after his dad passed. Sonora’s sister, Arnette Webster French, followed in her footsteps. She became a horse diver and joined the show but left in the 1930s.
Female Divers and Wild West Shows
Now let me pause in the story to give some context on female divers and wild west shows. For their courage, horse diving women were compensated better than women in most other professions at the time which might be part of the reason Sonora took her mother’s advice. When she signed on to Carver’s show in 1924, she earned $125 per week. She would perform her diving routine up to five times a day, making more than eight times what she had been as a department store bookkeeper. Another reason, was that female horse diving was among the most popular performances at Wild West Attractions. The stunt successfully combined attractive women, danger, and the magnetism of the “Wild West.” While women had been appearing as a novelty in Wild West shows since the early Buffalo Bill Cody days, female and male sharpshooters and trick riders were often interchangeable. Horse-diving acts, though, always used women riders, partly because Carver’s horses could support riders up to 135 pounds.
Of course, there was great risk in diving into a pool from heights of up to 60 feet on the back of a 1,000-pound wingless animal into a pool of water, yet Sonora survived her diving career in tack for about 8 years until 1931. While hitting the water off balance, face first and her eyes open; Sonora lost her vision from retinal detachment. She was diving her horse, Red Lips, on Atlantic City’s Steel Pier. In less than a year she came back and continued to dive horses. Although she was now blind, she kept diving for 11 more years until 1942.
Retirement and Protests against Diving Horses
After her retirement from diving, Sonora and her husband moved to New Orleans where she worked as a typist at the Lighthouse for the Blind and engaged in activism for the visually impaired. The act of diving horses remained a popular attraction at the Atlantic City boardwalk before being discontinued in the 1970s. An attempt to revive the act in the 1990s was short-lived, because of the protests from animal-rights activists concerned about horse safety. It was noted that when the show traveled the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would investigate if there was any harmful treatment being done. They never found anything in all the years of the act. there was never a horse that was injured.
She wrote a book about her life titled, A Girl and Five Brave Horses. I was able to find an audio copy at the National Library for the Blind and Print Disabled. There is also a 1991 film of her life portrayed in Disney’s fictionalized movie, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. Sonora died at 99 years old on September 20, 2003, in Pleasantville, New Jersey.
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 believed 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.
This month is Black History Month and I am so excited to share about this phenomenal woman I learned about from the podcast called Encyclopedia Womannica. I have been a listener and subscriber for a long time now, at least 2 years, and every day I learn about some incredible woman and what she has done in the world. Well, this time the woman was Patricia E. Bath. Much like our US Vice President, Kamala Harris, Bath, was the first in many categories. Let me list them for you:
1. The first African-American to complete a residency in ophthalmology
2. the first Black woman to receive a medical patent
3. The first American woman to be named a chair of ophthalmology.
Bath’s Early Years
Obviously, being the first to open the door is no joke and I can imagine that it took a lot of courage, strength and tenacity to get there. But Bath also got her grit from her parents as well. She was born in Harlem in 1942. Her father was the first Black motorman for the New York City subway system; and her mother was a domestic worker. Both of her parents supported her curiosity about the world and interest in science. Her dad was a world traveler during his days as a merchant marine, which gave him colorful stories to share with his family. Bath was particularly intrigued with the story of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a medical missionary, who dedicated his life to treating leprosy in the Congo. Her mother’s contribution was using the earnings from her job to purchase Bath’s first chemistry set.
In high school she was one of a few students selected to attend a cancer research workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The head of the workshop was so impressed, he included her findings in a paper he presented at a conference. Bath completed high school in two years, and went straight to Hunter College where she graduated in 1964. Next, she attended Howard Medical School in Washington, D.C.
Bath Notices Differences in Care Between Blacks and Whites
Finished with her degrees, Bath accepted an internship back home, at Harlem Hospital. The succeeding year, she also began pursuing a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University. While traveling between the hospital and the university, Bath noticed a stark difference in the number of blind or visually impaired patients at Harlem’s eye clinic compared to Columbia’s despite how close the two facilities were located to each other. The one notable difference was that Harlem’s patients were largely Black while Columbia’s were mainly white.
Drawing from her childhood curiosity, Bath led a retrospective epidemiological study. She found that blindness among the Black community was double that of whites. She concluded that high rates of blindness among African-Americans was largely due to the lack of access to care. She convinced physicians to offer surgeries at the Harlem clinic. And she proposed a new discipline called community ophthalmology. This new discipline combines elements of public health, community medicine and clinical ophthalmology to support underserved communities. Screenings were done for eye threatening conditions like glaucoma and cataracts. Volunteers were sent to senior centers and daycare facilities in the community. Children in need of glasses were identified early, giving them a better chance at school success. This discipline is still practiced worldwide today.
Bath Breaks Race and Gender Barriers
Bath began the final stage of her training at New York University In 1970. She broke a racial barrier by becoming the first African-American ophthalmology resident in American history. Shortly afterward she married a fellow physician and they had a daughter. A couple of years later Bath and her family relocated out west to California where she broke another barrier by becoming the first woman faculty member in UCLA’s Ophthalmology department. When she was hired, she was offered an office in the basement next to the lab animals. Instead of accusing her employer of discrimination Bath worked on getting more appropriate office space. By 1983, Bath was the chair of the department, and breaking yet another barrier by becoming the first woman in the US to hold that position.
Bath Invents Device to Remove cataracts
Bath believed that eyesight was a human right so in 1977, she and several colleagues created the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. They traveled around the world training volunteers, teaching, speaking and experiencing different cultures. During her travels, the most common cause of blindness she saw was cataracts. So, she decided to do something about it and in 1981 she invented a new device and method for treatment called the laserphaco probe. The probe is a fiber optic laser surrounded by irrigation and suction tubes. It lets surgeons to remove cataracts in a matter of minutes. Not only was the process quickly sped up, but it minimized the patient’s pain.
During this time, Bath’s concept outpaced current technology. She spent almost five years conducting research, trials and development work. In 1988, Bath broke another barrier becoming the first Black woman doctor to receive a patent. Today, the probe is frequently used around the world, and revolutionized the way cataracts are treated. Bath used her device personally restoring vision to several people who’d been blind for over 30 years. But in 1993, she retired from her position at UCLA to focus on telemedicine. She held positions in telemedicine at her alma mater, Howard University, and at St. George’s University in Grenada. In 2001, she was appointed to the International Women in Medicine Hall of Fame. Bath died on May 30, 2019, from complications with cancer. She was 76 years old.
I know many people are having a hard time this year because they won’t be able to have that
traditional Christmas with their families. The coronavirus has turned our world upside down and many of us are still practicing social distancing, sheltering in place and wearing a facemask. That also means no traveling home for Christmas to see our love ones or having to celebrate with a very small gathering. Well, for me Christmas has not been one of those traditional type holidays. I don’t typically decorate with a tree, lights and all the fixings. I don’t send out Christmas cards anymore. I don’t do Christmas shopping for presents. Now don’t get me wrong I am not a Grinch. I do love and enjoy the holiday season. I am just not beholden to it. For me it has become a traditional non-traditional holiday. Depending on the year and the mood I am in, I will attend a Christmas theatre production, watch an audio described Christmas movie or play Christmas music. I also might even cook a small holiday dinner if I am so inclined. So, with coronavirus shutting us down for the holidays, I don’t have the same emotions around it that some might.
I think my lax attitude about Christmas might have come from my childhood. As a family we had traditions but they never seem deal breakers if we didn’t do them. I remember when I was small every year, we put up this all-white artificial Christmas tree with bright, red shiny bulbs. Then we moved on up like the Jefferson’s and got real pine Christmas trees. My dad insisted on it and I never saw an artificial tree again until I was grown. We did the traditional holiday dinner but dad did the bulk of the cooking. He would smoke some kind of meet like chicken, turkey or a ham while making mac and cheese, collard greens, sweet potato pies. Mom would chip in baking a cake with pecans on the top. The kitchen would be buzzing Christmas Eve as we listened to R&B Christmas songs on the radio and nibbled on Hickory Farms smoke sausages and cheese logs.
Sometimes we would travel to Alabama to visit my grandparents but mostly we stayed at home. As I got older and moved away, I was the one doing the traveling back to Texas and it would depend on Christmas or Thanksgiving. I couldn’t do both holidays since they were too close together with the expense and taking time off from work. Some years I did neither. Additionally, I had to incorporate my disability and the complexities that came with it. So those years, I established some of my own traditions like mailing out festive Christmas cards, playing holiday music and preparing a dinner.
After dad died in 1996, mom got artificial trees again but the dinner menu stayed pretty much the same although cooked by others. By that time, we were not particular as we were just glad to be together as a family and the food was secondary. We would watch TV laughing and talking while snacking on the three-flavor holiday popcorn tin. Or responding to the ringing phone as relatives from Alabama called to chat, gossip and give Christmas greetings.
This year with the coronavirus I am not traveling and that is not so unusual. But I am doing some nontraditional things all the same. To brighten the holiday up for me I decided to mix things up a bit and do some new things. In the past I was such a Scrooge when it came to Christmas movies. I thought they were so cheesy, unrealistic and sappy that I would barely watch them. Well, I have changed my tune and thanks to Netflix and audio description I have been watching quite a few. They actually have been very enjoyable and have kept my mental state balanced and positive right now. I also decided to cook some nontraditional foods this year. No turkey, ham, collard greens, etc. At first, I was going to do Mexican but changed my mine. I decided to do some chicken in the air frier with cabbage. Then make some homemade mac and cheese and vanilla pudding. I have been looking at recipes online and excited about trying new things and expanding myself. I even purchase a set of no-salt seasonings with some new ones I am curious about trying. This pandemic has pushed me to stretch myself and step out and not do the same old same old. Traditions are good but trying new things are even better.
So, what traditions are you keeping for the holidays? Has this pandemic caused you to make some changes in your celebration? Or are you like me and will have a traditional non-traditional Christmas?
The fall is my favorite season and time of the year. The weather is cooler. The autumn colors of brown, orange, golden yellow, dark red and green are on display. October is the month when all of this jumps off. But one other thing I recently noticed is the number of blind and disabled observations happening at this time too. Not sure why this is the case but I couldn’t let another day go by without pointing them out. Or at least the ones I know about.
1. World Sight Day is held on the second Thursday of October every year and aims to focus global attention on vision impairment and blindness. There is a different theme every year, with many of those who mark the Day taking the opportunity to both celebrate achievements to date and advocate for increasing attention towards eye care. According to the World Health Organization 1 billion people around the world have a preventable vision impairment or one that has yet to be addressed. Reduced or absent eyesight can have major and long-lasting effects on all aspects of life, including daily personal activities, interacting with the community, school and work opportunities and the ability to access public services.
2. White Cane Safety Day is observed nationally on October 15th. It was a law passed to protect white cane pedestrians by giving them the right of way and recognizing that the white cane was a symbol of blindness. President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law in 1964.
3. Blind Americans Equality Day. In 2011, White Cane Safety Day was also named Blind Americans Equality Day by President Barack Obama. The mission is to celebrate the continuing achievements of blind and visually impaired Americans and reaffirm the commitment to advancing their complete social and economic integration.
4. Meet the Blind Month is hosted by the National Federation of the Blind every October. Throughout the month, members conduct a variety of outreach activities in their local communities. Many of these activities focus on White Cane Awareness Day, lived experiences with problem solving, self-confidence and intersectionality.
5. National Disability Employment Awareness Month acknowledges the ingenuity people with disabilities bring to America’s workplaces. Each October NDEAM celebrates America’s workers with disabilities and reminds employers of the importance of inclusive hiring practices. In 1945, Congress declared the first week of October “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” In 1962, the word “physically” was dropped to include individuals with all types of disabilities. Congress expanded the week to a month in 1988, and changed the commemoration to National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
6. Blind Awareness Month was created by The Little Rock Foundation in Voorhees, New Jersey to promote improving blind and visually impaired children’s lives. The goal is to educate the public about good eye health, and treatment of eye disorders. Inspire people with stories of the blind and their accomplishments. Advocate for research, resources and laws that benefit the blind community.
After doing my research I would dare to say that October is the month of the blind. I would encourage you to take some time and learn more, volunteer or donate to an organization serving the blind community.