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Disabled Black History: Shining A Light on Disabled Black Authors & Their Work

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In continuing with the theme of Black History Month 2016 by shining a bright light on disabled Black authors, this week will focus on the literary works of disabled black trailblazers from the past and present, young and old.

Searching for literature written by and/or share the stories of disabled Black people can be a needle in a haystack situation:  these bodies of work are not easily found, but when discovered, opens the door to voices and tales that may resonate deeply within the soul of the seeker.  Disability in literature is gravely underrepresented in general; when you add race into the mix, it gets even dimmer regarding visibility.  Spotlighting the diverse experiences within the disabled community is essential for us to fully understand various perspectives and ideas that broadens our view of the world and the people in it.  

Compiling this list of disabled Black authors was an incredibly affirmative challenge because it displays the creativity and gumption these authors had in writing stories they felt were worthy of being written and read.  Their works are as diverse as them:  fiction, academia, memoirs, and self-help/advice.  For each author (listed in no particular order), provided are their disabilities, book title, book summary, and links to where you can buy and/or learn more about them.  

Without further ado…

Sophia Chester, Author
Disability:  Cystic Hygroma
Book:  Cosmic Callisto Caprica & The Missing Rings Of Saturn
Summary:  Cosmo goes undercover to find the missing Rings of Saturn.  But will she uncover the mystery before her cover is blown?  Or will Cosmo be captured, leaving the Rings of Saturn lost forever? Join the fearless Cosmo in this fun and exciting futuristic mystery adventure — Cosmic Callisto Caprica and the Missing Rings of Saturn, by acclaimed author Sophia Chester.
Where to buy:  Smashwords
Special note:  Sophia has been gracious enough to allow me to interview her for the blog.  Be on the lookout for her interview next week.

 

Christopher M. Bell, Disability Studies Scholar and Advocate
Disability:  AIDS
Book:  Blackness and Disability:  Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions
Summary:  Disability Studies diverge from the medical model of disability (which argues that disabled subjects can and should be “fixed”) to view disability as socially constructed, much in the same way other identities are.  The work of reading black and disabled bodies is not only recovery work, but work that requires a willingness to deconstruct the systems that would keep those bodies in separate spheres.  This pivotal volume uncovers the misrepresentations of black disabled bodies and demonstrates how those bodies transform systems and culture.  Drawing on key themes in Disability Studies and African American Studies, these collected essays complement one another in interesting and dynamic ways, to forge connections across genres and chronotopes, an invitation to keep blackness and disability in conversation.  With an analysis of disability as a result of war, studies of cognitive impairment and slavery in fiction, representations of slavery and violence in photography, deconstructions of illness (cancer and AIDS) narratives, comparative analyses of black and Latina/o and black and African subjects, analysis of treatments of disability in hip-hop, and commentary on disability, blackness, and war, this volume shows that the historical lines of demarcation in this field are permeable and should be challenged.
Where to buy:  Amazon
Special note:  This is a book I personally own.  For those who are interested in disability studies, I highly recommend adding this book to your library.

 

Dr. Maya Angelou, Author, Poet
Disability:  Selective Mutism
Book:  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Summary:  In this first of five volumes of autobiography, poet Maya Angelou recounts a youth filled with disappointment, frustration, tragedy, and finally hard-won independence.  Sent at a young age to live with her grandmother in Arkansas, Angelou learned a great deal from this exceptional woman and the tightly knit black community there.  These very lessons carried her throughout the hardships she endured later in life, including a tragic occurrence while visiting her mother in St. Louis and her formative years spent in California – where an unwanted pregnancy changed her life forever.  Marvelously told, with Angelou’s “gift for language and observation,” this “remarkable autobiography by an equally remarkable black woman from Arkansas captures, indelibly, a world of which most Americans are shamefully ignorant.”
Where to buy:  You can find all of Maya’s works, including the one I highlighted, through her author’s page on Amazon.
Special note:  I wrote about Maya last year for Black History Month when I featured influential disabled Black advocates.

 

Patricia and Hydeia Broadbent, Advocates
Disability:  Patricia – cancer; Hydeia – HIV
Book:  You Get Past the Tears:  A Memoir of Love and Survival
Summary:  In 1984, Patricia Broadbent, a mother and former social worker, adopted Hydeia, an infant born to a drug-addicted mother.  Three years later, the sickly baby girl was diagnosed with AIDS.  This book is the story of raising Hydeia at a time when very little was known about pediatric AIDS.  Although both mother and daughter are listed as authors, almost all of the book is in the mother’s words.  Hydeia, now about 18, is doing well and working as an AIDS activist.  The mother’s story is less about tears and more about being pushy and aggressive with doctors and others.  She documents her frustration and how she learned to deal with it, but readers will likely view her as self-righteous rather than as a hero.
Where to buy:  Amazon
Special note:  I wrote about Hydeia last year for Black History Month when I featured influential disabled Black advocates.

 

Elizabeth “Eliza” Suggs, Early 20th Century Author
Disability:  Osteogenesis Imperfecta
Book:  Shadow and Sunshine
Summary:  Autobiographical account of Eliza’s family history and her life with brittle bones disorder.
Where to buy:  Amazon, and the University of North Carolina has a digitalized version.
Special note:  I wrote about Eliza’s life for Black History Month 2016, and it was well-received and widely shared.

 

Robby Novak, The Kid President
Disability:  Osteogenesis Imperfecta
Book:  Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome
Summary:  In his Guide to Being Awesome, Kid President pulls together lists of awesome ideas to help the world, awesome interviews with his awesome celebrity friends (he has interviewed Beyoncé!), and a step-by-step guide to make pretty much everything a little bit awesomer.  Grab a corn dog and settle in to your favorite comfy chair.  Pretend it’s your birthday!  (In fact, treat everyone like it’s THEIR birthday!)  Kid President is here with a 240-page, full-color Guide to Being Awesome that’ll spread love and inspire the world.
Where to buy:  Amazon

 

Arthur Ashe, Tennis Legend
Disability:  AIDS
Book:  Days of Grace
Summary:  An introspective and poignant book that is well-worth reading.  With the help of Langston Hughes’s biographer, Ashe has written a very absorbing account of his life.  He tells of his mother’s death when he was six years old and the strong influence of his loving but demanding father that stood him in good stead when he entered the all-white world of tennis in the 1960s.  He recounts his athletic career and the difficulties he experienced on the court with players such as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.  But the major portion of the book focuses on the 1980s, during which time he had two heart operations and contracted the AIDS virus via a blood transfusion.  Although not a member of the LGBT community, Ashe became a sympathetic activist for the gay community.  He was very vocal in his last years, speaking out against prejudice towards AIDS victims, racism, apartheid, and U.S. policy towards Haitians wishing to enter this country.
Where to buy:  Amazon

 

Mario Bonds, Performer, & Starred in “The Glee Project”
Disability:  Visual disability (Blindness)
Book:  Without Sight but Full of Vision:  The Journey Begins
Summary:  A childhood marred by abuse, abandonment, homelessness, blindness and more couldn’t stop him.  See how Mario, against unthinkable odds, kept his courage in the face of deep challenge, leveraged his life experiences and his creativity to ultimately overcome significant adversity and generate wonderful opportunities for himself.  He conquered adversity to reach much success.  You can too!  Take a walk through his journey and be inspired by this powerful story of drive, passion and perseverance.
Where to buy:  Amazon

 

Blake Leeper, Athlete / Paralympian
Disability:  Amputee
Book:  Leap of Faith:  My Journey to Become the Fastest American on Two Blades
Summary:  Blake Leeper was born with a congenital birth defect that left him with no legs below the knee.  The doctor told his parents the best-case scenario would be Blake using a wheelchair the rest of his life.  His parents refused to accept that and fitted Blake with prosthetics.  Not only did Blake get the chance to walk, he was able to imagine a possible future in sports.
But it wasn’t until 2008, while he was studying applied physics in his college dorm room, that he saw Oscar Pistorius — born with the same birth defect — sprint across the television screen, and decided that this was what he wanted to do with his life.  He wanted to run.  Although it took him two years to get his first set of $40,000 carbon fiber running blades, he was soon smashing records.  In his first Paralympic games in 2012, as a complete unknown, Blake took home a silver and a bronze, and currently holds a world record in 100 meters — tied, incidentally, with Oscar Pistorius.
This is Blake’s story.  He opens up about the challenges he faced throughout his life journey, the never-ending support of his parents, his positive attitude, and his unwavering faith that sustained him through it all.
Where to buy:  Amazon

 

Ishmael Beah, Children’s Rights Advocate
Disability:  PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)
Book:  A Long Way Gone:  Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
Summary:  This gripping story by a children’s-rights advocate recounts his experiences as a boy growing up in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, during one of the most brutal and violent civil wars in recent history.  Beah, a boy equally thrilled by causing mischief as by memorizing passages from Shakespeare and dance moves from hip-hop videos, was a typical precocious 12-year-old.  But rebel forces destroyed his childhood innocence when they hit his village, driving him to leave his home and travel the arid deserts and jungles of Africa.  After several months of struggle, he was recruited by the national army, made a full soldier and learned to shoot an AK-47, and hated everyone who came up against the rebels.  The first two thirds of his memoir are frightening: how easy it is for a normal boy to transform into someone as addicted to killing as he is to the cocaine that the army makes readily available.  But an abrupt change occurred a few years later when agents from the United Nations pulled him out of the army and placed him in a rehabilitation center.  Anger and hate slowly faded away, and readers see the first glimmers of Beah’s work as an advocate.
Where to buy:  Amazon

 

Whoopi Goldberg, Actress, Entertainer
Disability:  Dyslexia
Book:  Sugar Plum Ballerinas #1:  Plum Fantastic
Summary:  Alexandrea has just moved from small-town Georgia to New York City’s Harlem where her mother hopes to launch a costume-making business.  The nine-year-old feels like she’s in another world, except that Mama is still forcing her to take ballet, even though Alex dreams of becoming a speed skater like her idol Phoebe Fitz.  The first day of class is made even worse, since her mother forces her to wear a wild creation — a tutu resembling a “pink puff pastry.”  When Alex is randomly assigned the coveted role of Sugar Plum Fairy in the school’s summer performance, she is terrified and shunned by the other dancers.  Practice doesn’t help, and she seriously considers giving up the part.  However, after seeing Phoebe Fitz on television talking about the importance of ballet, Alex determines to try her best.  She enlists the help of other students, and as the girls progress with the dance moves, so do their friendships.  Alex’s voice is full of wit and determination.
Where to buy:  Amazon

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Final Thoughts

Though there are 12 authors in this compilation, I know that there are many books by disabled Black authors that was not highlighted or has yet to be written.  As someone who is an aspiring author, it is empowering to use these bodies of work as encouragement to write stories so that we can have books for us, by us.  

I would love to hear from you if you have read these books, or know of disabled Black authors who should be on my radar.  These stories, regardless of genre, are dire to fill the disability gap within the literature realm.  

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of ShutterStock.)

** Special note:  Though I listed Amazon as a source to find many of the books by these authors, do know that you can find these titles where books are sold, in bookstores and online.

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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