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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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Ask your father what time he goes to work.

“I leave home 7:30. I arrive work sometimes 8:15, 8:30. I buy coffee before work at White Castle.”

“Ask your father if he has ever been late or missed certain days from work.”

“No, I never late. One time bus break down. I late one hour. Most time never late, never miss work.”

“Ask your father if he knows that he makes weird sounds when he talks.”

“I don’t know, I can’t hear,” said Daddy. There were a few chuckles in the courtroom.

“Ask your father if he drinks alcohol,” the lawyer wanted to know.

I quickly had a conversation in my head: “Alcohol? Does he mean alcohol I rub my body with . . . no, no, that can’t be. Maybe he’s asking about a glass with whiskey in it, or does he mean beer which has alcohol in it—Daddy drinks a lot of beer.” My thoughts zigged and zagged in my mind. My fingers were quivering, as I began to fingerspell the word “do,” then signed the words “you drink” then my hands visibly trembled, as I spelled out the word “alcohol.” Daddy looked at me with a piercing stare.

He had read my mind as he signed, “Which? Beer or whiskey?”

I heard my voice; it sounded shrill, as I tried to be loud enough for the prosecutor to hear me. I must get the signing correct . . . just right, but I must help Daddy. I knew he drank cans and cans of beer.

“My father says which one, beer or whiskey?”

“Whiskey,” said the prosecutor.

I signed the word “whiskey.”

“Yes, I drink whiskey.”

Ask your father how much whiskey he drinks.

My hands felt sweaty as I became even more tense. I heard the silence in the room and wondered if everyone was holding their breath to see how Daddy would answer the question.

“I drink this much.” Daddy, pulling together his thumb and index finger in one sign, made a gesture signaling the approximate size of a shot glass of whiskey.

“My father says this much.” And I imitated the sign my father made.

The lawyer shook his head and laughed. Spectators laughed. The judge snickered. They’re all laughing, I thought. That means everything’s all right. I looked over at Daddy, who sighed in relief to see others smiling, and he began to smile himself.

Finally, the lawyers made closing statements; afterward the jury plodded out of the courtroom one by one. Then there was the anxious waiting: one, two, three hours later. When the jury returned, a woman appearing very refined in a gray tweed suit announced the jury had reached a verdict. The original interpreter stood in front of my father and began to sign, “We the jury find the defendant, Herbert A. Childress, not guilty.”

I sat directly behind Daddy when I heard the verdict and saw his broad arched shoulders suddenly slump down in relief. His lawyer turned to him, shook his hand, and people came from everywhere to congratulate him. But it was obvious Daddy was not happy; he nodded his head and swept Mama, Arnell, and me out the courtroom to the elevators.

The attractively dressed woman walked over to us while we were standing at the elevator with the lawyers. She looked directly at me. “Tell your father I was one of the jurors. I just knew he couldn’t have done those things.”

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