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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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On the Beat of Truth: A Hearing Daughter’s Stories of Her Black Deaf Parents

Maxine Childress Brown


A Policeman Comes A-Knockin’

“My father wants to know what is he going to jail for.”

. . . . . It was 1953, I was ten years old and in the fifth grade at Richardson Elementary School. I was sitting on the floor, watching our five-year-old television, when the naked lightbulb flashed over the front door in the living room, flicker . . . flicker . . . flicker. Daddy went to the door when he saw the lightbulb flashing, and I followed, a few steps behind him. A big broad-shouldered white man stood there, looking very somber.

“Herbert Childress?”

Daddy looked down at me, expecting me to begin interpreting the man’s words. I uneasily and shyly moved closer beside Daddy and said, “My father can’t hear or talk.”

Standing in the doorway, the man looked at me slightly puzzled, then looked at my father, and back at me.

“Tell him he’s under arrest.” He paused a moment and then gave Daddy a white folded paper, glaring at him. The white man hesitated; he may have thought we didn’t understand the gravity of the situation when he stared at my father and then at me saying, “I have to take your father to jail.” My signs became excitable as I told Daddy that the man says you are going to jail.

Daddy stared down at the paper, “What this? What this?” alarm spreading on his face. I didn’t know why he was going to jail, so I just repeated my signs, “Man say you jail.”

“Jail? Jail? For what?” Flustered, not believing what he was seeing, he said, “Mistake. Wrong. Jail what for?”

I saw the panic on Daddy’s face. The confusion and fear. I began to feel a sense of foreboding.

“My daddy wants to know what is he going to jail for.”

The man, standing there in the doorway, facing my father and me, did not seem as confrontational as he had been a second or two earlier, and his words became more patient.

“Tell him they say he has done a bad thing. He has to get a lawyer. But first he has to come with me to the police station.”

My father was led to the police car, where he slid onto the backseat. At the station, Daddy scribbled on a notepad that he would like them to call his sister, Arnell Richmond. Arnell was his youngest sister and freely used homemade signs, gestures, and an occasional letter in fingerspelling when talking with her brother. When uncertain if he understood her, she would pull out notepaper and pencil and write to him.

In the following days and weeks, the house took on a gray cast of hopelessness and gloom, with seething anger quietly pervading the rooms. Tension, bickering, and a plague of sadness consumed us all. The shadow of fear hovered over us: the fear of the police, the lawyers, and the white people who were going to make Daddy go to jail. Words such as “bail” “summons” and “character witnesses” were thrown about, words I didn’t understand, as hearing people came to the house to talk to my father. I was expected to understand, expected to interpret, expected to make certain Daddy understood what was taking place. That’s when I realized how smart he was—he understood my signs and fingerspelling even when I did not. I didn’t know what I was saying, I was just spelling out the words or using a hand sign that might translate the sentence correctly. I had no idea what it all meant. But Daddy did, as he calmly asked me a question or two and nodded his head to indicate he comprehended it all.

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