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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
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There was the black minister from Shiloh Baptist, who testified that Daddy would come to church on Sunday nights with his family. “Yes, I preach to deaf people on Sunday nights. I don’t know sign language myself—I have an interpreter sign for me, Mr. Harry Lee. But I’ve come to know all the deaf families who attend the services. Well, most of them, once in a while there’d be a new person there from out of town. No. No. I don’t preach every Sunday. Every once in a while, especially on the fourth or fi fth Sunday, Reverend Soulles would preach there. He’s a visiting pastor who knows sign language.”

I looked around to see if Reverend Soulles was in the courtroom; he was not. But I did see Mr. Harry Lee, a tall, lanky, very light-complexioned deaf black man who had gained both the trust and affection of the deaf Negro community because he could speak so clearly, and had residual hearing. He often helped his friends by acting as an interpreter or mediator of sorts. His speech was clear and crisp, easily understandable without any slurs. He must have lost his hearing at a much older age than when Daddy lost his. Anyway, Mr. Lee told of Daddy’s civic activities, that Daddy was one of the founders of a social club for the deaf for “colored people.”

Then “Banana” came forward, too. Because her complexion was a pale, almost yellowish, coloring, I called her Banana. I never learned her real name. She said that Daddy and Mama would stop at her ice cream fountain shop most Sunday nights after church services, just before catching the streetcar home. It really felt good to see Banana, a six-foot-tall, broad-shouldered woman who seemed to be the nicest person I didn’t know.

One by one, people were brought in by Daddy’s lawyer to give supporting testimony for my father.

Then it was time for my father to testify. The interpreter came forward, too. Daddy was sworn in, and then a rash of questions were thrust at him by lawyers. The interpreter meticulously translated verbatim in Signed English, signing and fingerspelling literally—word for word, everything that was said.

I marveled at how fast his fingers flew. Everything he signed was grammatically correct. There were no gestures, no omissions or changing of signs to make a point clearer. As I listened and watched the interpreter, I saw how his signs were different from those signs Mama and Daddy taught me. He signed the word “what” with an index finger going across the palm of the other hand, while I used both hands palms up and shake them a little, and the word “how” was signed differently, too.

As the interpreter continued his crisp translation, putting the lawyers’ questions to my father, Daddy began to frown. His eyes squinted and he shook his head.

“I not understand,” said my father.

The interpreter tried to sign the questions again, this time changing a phrase or word in an effort to be understood.

Daddy paused and signed, “Say again, please.” He squinted his eyes again, longer this time, and slowly shook his head, “I not understand. I not understand you say. Say again.”

The interpreter obviously frustrated, turned to the judge and said, “It’s clear that Mr. Childress does not understand my signs.”

Now the lawyers and the judge became agitated, not knowing what to do. Apparently, this was an obstacle they had not anticipated.

The judge then said to the interpreter, “Ask him if he has a preference for an interpreter? Is there someone he d-o-e-s understand?”

Then the interpreter signed slowly, intently, “You know someone who can sign you can understand?”

“Yes, my daughter Maxine sign.”

The prosecutor and the interpreter looked in the direction my father was pointing. I sat on the front row, behind the swinging wooden gate, separating the courtroom audience from the legal people.

“Are you Maxine? Can you interpret for your father?”

I meekly nodded and then stood up to walk through the swinging gate. My knees trembled as I walked erectly, thinking to myself, “I can’t be scared, so scared I don’t know how to sign those big words.” The lawyers began to talk in a quiet tone, almost whispering, as they put their questions in simple phrases.

“Ask your father where he works.”

“You tell him I shoe repairman, Sam’s shoe repair.” Daddy signed and fingerspelled each word slowly, deliberately, and with extreme measure.


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