|Sounds Like Home|
Growing Up Black and Deaf in the South
Mary Herring Wright
From History of Education Quarterly
I remember the monotone voice of my great aunt reading to me as a child. She lost her hearing when she was eleven- or twelve-years old as a result of a severe uncontrolled ear infection before the invention of antibiotics. Since she lost her hearing after she learned to speak and read, she retained those capabilities even though she could not hear any of the normal range of human speech. A product of middle—class Victorian society, as a result of her misfortune she was retained by her family as a hostage, protected from the life of “normal” children. She was withdrawn from formal schooling, was not allowed to date much less marry, and remained a dependent all her life even though she lived into her ninth decade. She cooked for, cleaned up after, and tutored her younger sibling’s children and their children. Her story as a deaf child in the late nineteenth century, growing to adulthood in the twentieth century, if written, would serve as a document of the era when the hearing impaired were considered not only “deaf" but incapacitated beyond redemption, not to be seen or heard, mute or “dumb.”
Mary Herring Wright’s biography parallels and continues chronologically from my aunt’s story as a “normal” hearing child stricken by a life—transforming change that placed her in a world without sound. There are significant differences that make Wright’s story especially noteworthy. Mary Wright’s description of growing up would be significant even if she were a hearing child in that she describes childhood in rural North Carolina in the 1920s and l930s in an African-American family of modest but stable means as property owners and farmers. She describes her family, school, and social life in simple and compelling detail. Wright’s experience diverges from my aunt’s generation of deaf children in that she was sent to the North Carolina School for the Blind and Deaf. Wright describes that school in great detail from the perspective of a student and a student teacher. Official records and archival evidence often do not give up the secrets of the daily life of students and teachers, which autobiographies such as Wright’s provide.
Wright’s objective in writing Sounds Like Home was to “chronicle my experiences growing up as a deaf person” for her children and also for “deaf people” to dissuade prejudices and stereotypes (p. ix). My aunt and Mary Wright are somewhat unusual in that their hearing loss was nearly complete. Mary’s hearing began to deteriorate for unknown reasons at eight years of age and was gone by age ten. It is popular in contemporary texts on minority experiences in education to refer to the “silenced voices” of those whose culture is not recognized as important and whose perspectives are suppressed or ignored. The world of those who cannot hear, or are hearing impaired, is silent in a literal sense and also figuratively in terms societal reaction and ignorance. Auditory problems are relatively common and range on a scale from annoying to serious. Ironically, not hearing is only a disadvantage if one lives in a world organized for the hearing. Since most of human society is organized for both sight and sound, not hearing can be a disadvantage of great dimension, but the disadvantage is moderated by the circumstances of ones birth, time, and place. As Norhert Elias points out, it is the reaction of adults to children that determines their socialization experiences, their opportunities, and outcomes.
Mary Herring Wright grew up to live a “normal” productive life as a worker, wife, and mother of four. Controversies over the last 150 years continue today over whether deaf children should be taught to cope with the hearing world or allowed to create and participate in their own culture. Most solutions are intermediate and combine schooling for interaction with the hearing and experiences that bring children with significant hearing loss together in residential or special educational settings. Mary Wright’s story is as she describes it, “one of enduring faith, perseverance, and optimism.” She hopes it also will “serve as a source of inspiration” (p. x). For historians of childhood and education, her biography is a primary as well as a secondary source on childhood and the education of deaf children in the South between the World Wars. It contains great information on schooling, family, and African-American culture and experience in particular.
—Theresa Richardson, University of South Florida
Mary Herring Wright lived in Wallace, NC.
Print Edition: ISBN 978-1-56368-080-9, 6 x 9 paperback, 296 pages, photographs
E-Book: ISBN 978-1-56368-249-0
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