Gallaudet University Press

Interview With the Author

Maxine Childress Brown,
Author, On the Beat of Truth: A Hearing Daughter’s Stories of Her Black Deaf Parents

GUPress: As a child of deaf African American parents, did you notice a difference in the sign language you experienced growing up in a black community and the sign language you saw later in life when you were around more white people? If so, can you give examples?

Maxine Childress Brown: I was ten years old when I first became aware of the significant difference between sign language used in the Black Deaf community and sign language often used by white people. My experience is described poignantly in the book when my father was arrested for a very serious crime and he could not comprehend the signs made by a white interpreter in the courtroom. He, asked the judge and prosecutor if I could interpret for him instead of the white interpreter. Initially, it was fascinating to me to witness this interpreter’s fluid signs interpreting our English language in crisp snappy signs with nimble fingers occasionally fingerspelling the alphabet. Seeing his signs was comparable to hearing someone speak a foreign language alien to me, a perception, as mentioned earlier, that was also shared by my father. Later, when I was eighteen years old and a freshman at Howard University, I was hired by Dr. Jerome Schein, a professor at Gallaudet College, to conduct interviews for a research project, which required sundry skills: a working knowledge of American Sign Language (ASL); a familiarity with signs used in the Black Deaf community; and a commitment to learn Total Communication. This job provided me with a deep appreciation of the various ways deaf and hard of hearing people communicate, from the oral method to Signed English to ASL.

GUPress: When you went to college, did you ever imagine you would become a sign language interpreter? How did this come about?

Maxine Childress Brown: As a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, I became aware of the need for interpreters for a newly funded federal program, Media Specialists for the Deaf. It was a position requiring interpreters to accompany deaf or hard of hearing students to their classes and interpret for them. This position allowed me to be in contact with other interpreters across the state and to form the Connecticut River Valley Interpreters for the Deaf, an organization encompassing areas in New England: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont. This organization was one of the first to launch a state registry of interpreters for the deaf, the forerunner to the National Registry of Interpreters, and in that capacity created an examination process for each person who wished to become an interpreter for the deaf or hard of hearing individual. When I completed my graduate studies, I came to National Technical Institute for the Deaf to teach. Later, I went to SUNY Geneseo as an assistant professor and director of the learning disabilities program, after which I became head of a program called People Helping People, an information and referral program for individuals with disabilities.

GUPress: In your book, you mention that the church your family attended held a later service specifically for deaf congregants. Were you friends with other children of deaf adults as a means of support? Was there a bond due to your unique family make up?

Maxine Childress Brown: Ironically, many Black deaf adults attending Shiloh Baptist Church either left their hearing children at home because their children did not use sign language or these deaf families brought children to church who were much younger than me. As a result, there was neither a bond among us as children of deaf parents nor a willingness to provide each other with support. In essence, the Black deaf adults had a close relationship with each other, but this did not carry over to the children of deaf parents at that time.

15:6 Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Deafness, Blackness, Gender, and Poverty

A Child of Deaf Adults Shares the Joys and Struggles of Growing Up in a Unique Family

“My mother, Thomasina Brown Childress, was a natural storyteller,” shares Maxine Childress Brown, author of On the Beat of Truth: A Hearing Daughter’s Stories of Her Black Deaf Parents, “telling me vivid stories as early as I can remember, from when I was three years old until her death at ninety-six. Stricken with crippling diabetes, renal failure, and ITP (idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura), Mama would nonetheless reminisce in sign language many of the exceptional episodes in her own life. As the richness of her stories began to unfold I, as a youngster, would seek out further details. Her hands would flow with instant memories, as I asked about the rural South; or the segregated residential school; or about her married life to my father, Herbert Childress. My mother’s description of life in the South was so revealing: when segregation was the law of the land and deaf children attended segregated schools for the ‘colored’ deaf and blind.”

“I decided right then and there to write a book documenting all that she divulged—from my mother’s birth in South Carolina to my father’s in Tennessee. This is a story of my early years growing up in a unique family with many contrasts: passionate love of family versus tension and misunderstanding; warmth and love versus confrontation and hostility; poverty versus the struggle to maintain a standard of living slightly above desperation; and courage versus depression. A true profile in courage in the lives of two deaf people during the first half of the twentieth century.”

Read about Maxine’s father’s trial for indecent exposure now, and use your exclusive subscriber discount to receive a savings of 20% off when you order On the Beat of Truth. When ordering online, type “JUN2013” in the box labeled “use promo code” next to the checkout button. You may also order by mail.

In Amy Signs: A Mother, Her Deaf Daughter, and Their Stories, Rebecca Willman Gernon describes her struggle to raise her deaf daughter Amy and the long search to find the right educational environment. For the first time, both mother and daughter relate their shared story about the arduous journey that led to Amy’s ability to thrive in today’s world.

The Midwest Book Review took notice and published this glowing review: “Amy Signs provides an account unique in the literature of the deaf community: an account of a hearing mother and a deaf daughter who provide their different perspectives on Amy’s childhood and education. Rebecca was anguished to learn of her 11-month-old baby’s deafness in 1969: her account charts struggles to find the right educational opportunities for Amy. Amy’s story reveals her life at a boarding school, her world of deaf friends living away from home, and her introduction to the world of sign. A fine account evolves with two different perspectives revealed.” Read chapter 37, “Do You Sign?”, in its entirety, and order Amy Signs today. For your convenience, you may order online or by mail.

Four Days in Michigan: A Novel by Philip Zazove also earned praise from The Midwest Book Review: “The barriers we often set up in life are nothing in the face of love. Four Days in Michigan is a deaf romance from Philip Zazove, as he tells the story of Sandra Horowitz, a deaf Jewish woman in 1942 who falls for a soldier about to leave for the war and is both hearing and a Gentile. Their love comes under fire from both of their families, as Zazove crafts a down-to-earth and charming novel of romance above all else. Four Days in Michigan is a strong pick for any fiction collection looking to add deafness-oriented stories to their shelves.” Read more about the struggles and eventual triumph of these two young lovers from strikingly different worlds, and place your order online or by mail.

Interview With the Author, cont’d.

GUPress: Please share one or two of your happiest memories from your childhood.

Maxine Childress Brown: As described in the book, I truly basked in the experience of commuting to Virginia to a farm owned by a deaf man who offered my parents opportunities to raise livestock, primarily pigs, goats, and chickens, and also to pick fruit, mostly apples and pears. I must have been nine or ten years old when my father would pile the entire family in his Ford automobile and take us for the long drive from Washington, DC, to Falls Church, Virginia. I remember fondly my father’s glee when he would finally drive up to the farm and how with excitement, he encouraged my sisters and me to run, play, and jump on what I am sure he felt was God’s country.

I was younger, around six or seven years old, when my parents and I would leave Shiloh Baptist Church to congregate with other Black deaf folks at a soda fountain owned by a woman whom I called “Banana.” That’s when she would make banana splits and ice cream sundaes the old fashioned way with whipped cream and cherries on top. Banana would heap large scoops of ice cream for me and would marvel at my capacity to interpret for my parents and gobble down the ice cream at the same time. My parents were so very proud of my signing ability and reinforced their delight by praising me constantly, and, of course, showering me with more ice cream. Ahhh! Those were the days.

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