Christianity was central in Eliza’s life. Her disability, she believed, had brought her closer to God. In a poem titled “Perfect Through Suffering,” she wrote:
“So He sends you the blinding darkness,
And the furnace of seven-fold heat;
'Tis the only way, believe me,
To keep you close to His feet,
For 'tis always so easy to wander
When our lives are glad and sweet.”
“Some wonder how I can be happy in my condition,” she shared in her narrative. “It is the sunlight of God in my soul that makes me happy. It would be hard to live without the Lord. I get much pleasure from the reading of good books. I enjoy looking at the beautiful things in nature and in art. I love to listen to the singing of the birds and to sweet music.”
“She tried to explain this, at the time, radical idea that it was possible to be both happy and disabled,” Daisy commented, “that while she has restrictions she can hear and read and speak and see just fine, her hands work and despite the attitudes of ableds, she has achieved more than many of them have. She’s a badass is what I’m getting at.”
Like Mary A. McCurdy before her, Eliza’s faith led her to the temperance movement that agitated for the prohibition of alcohol. Temperance activists, often women without other political power, grasped at alcohol as an ill in their communities that they could remedy.
“America’s most vocal prohibitionists weren’t privileged white evangelicals, but its most marginalized and disenfranchised communities: women, Native Americans and African Americans. Indeed, temperance and prohibitionism worked hand-in-glove with other freedom movements—abolitionism and suffragism—that fought against the entrenched system of domination and subordination,” wrote political science professor Mark Lawrence in “The Forgotten History of Black Prohibitionism” for Politico. In her temperance work, Eliza was in agreement with the greatest leaders of the age. “[N]early every major Black abolitionist and civil rights leader before World War I—from Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany and Sojourner Truth to F.E.W. Harper, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington—endorsed temperance and prohibition.”
In Eliza’s view, the destructive quality of alcohol was akin to that of chattel slavery itself. “The Drink Demon's slave is held with an ever tightening grip in life, and is ruined, body and soul, in death. Shall we see the curse of strong drink wiped out even as we have seen the curse of slavery? Shall we have an Emancipation Proclamation for the defenceless millions over whom drink is now tyranizing?”
Eliza dreamt of proselytizing in Africa, in China and India. When Christian missionary friends would travel, she eagerly exchanged letters with them. Her health never permitted her to travel more widely herself. “I esteem it a great privilege to help hold the ropes in this country, and to pray for and encourage those who go,” she said.
She ends Shadow and Sunshine with a collection of “Incidents of Slavery.” The importance of these accounts, and this book itself, is difficult to overstate. As PBS noted, “[Sl]ave narratives provided the most powerful voices contradicting the slaveholders' favorable claims concerning slavery. By their very existence, the narratives demonstrated that African Americans were people with mastery of language and the ability to write their own history.” This rings doubly true for a disabled Black woman like Eliza.
“Eliza is a very unusual case, as a disabled person at this time who was actively taking control of her own narrative,” Daisy said. Just two years after the publishing of Shadow and Sunshine, Eliza died at age 31 on Jan. 29, 1908, in Orleans, Nebraska.
Like so many disabled women of color before and after her, her story could have been left behind in history. What we know of Eliza Suggs and her parents is entirely because Eliza herself was determined to share it.
Shadow and Sunshine by Eliza Suggs
Disability History Snapshots: Eliza Suggs: Early #disabledsnark at its finest
Politico: The Forgotten History of Black Prohibitionism
New York Public Library Digital Collections: Photos of Eliza and family
PBS Resource Bank: Slave narratives and Uncle Tom's Cabin
Wikipedia: Eliza Suggs