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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Sounds Like Home: Growing Up Black and Deaf in the South

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There’s supposed to be a certain age when people begin to record memories. One of the first things I can recall is crawling across a plank on our porch. It led from the doorstep to the door while floorboards were being put down. I definitely remember crawling along it, hearing Mama screech and pick me up. However, I’ve never been able to convince any of my family of this. They insist I was far too young, I hadn’t even started walking. As a child, the things I said were mostly ignored, hooted down, or taken with a grain of salt at best. This didn’t faze me in the least. I always knew what I felt, heard, and saw.

I guess my brain really began registering things on a warm August morning in 1926 when I was going on three years old. Upon awakening and failing to hear pots and pans rattling in the kitchen, smell coffee perking, or hear the sound of Mama’s voice, I went in search of her. The kitchen was empty. I had looked in all the rooms except the front bedroom in which my parents slept. This door was closed and I didn’t see any of the other children or Papa. Sounds came from this room so I planted myself by the door. Each time someone opened it, I tried to sneak in but was pushed back and told to stay out of the way.

Finally Papa rushed into the bedroom, then back out, taking me with him as he left. Somehow we were in the truck. I say “truck,” but I think it was once a car. Half of the body was cut away, then a box fitted on back and the whole thing painted blue. As I remember, we called it Bluebird. I sat there expectantly while Papa grabbed the crank, jabbed it in place, and cranked furiously. It caught, roared to life, then shook and rattled, ready to take off—and take off it did, over ruts and bumps, dust billowing from behind.

“Where we going, Papa?” I asked when I could hold still long enough.

“To get Miss Minnie.”

I wondered who Miss Minnie was and why he was going to get her, but said no more. One didn’t keep asking Papa questions. Besides, I was too busy grasping at something to hold onto as Bluebird roared and rattled onward. Then we were in front of a little house somewhere, and Papa had rushed in to get Miss Minnie, who turned out to be a small, light-complexioned woman with big round eyes that looked like our calf’s. I think I stared at her all the way back home. She paid me no mind and disappeared into the room Mama seemed to be in, taking her little black bag with her.

I was told to go play. How could I play, not knowing where my Mama was? I stayed right by that door, trying to see inside every time it was opened. I could smell the sharp smell of Lysol and hear queer noises. Finally someone took me by the hand and led me in, only I couldn’t see a thing. Dark green shades covered the windows—only a slit of light here and there. Blankets covered the head and foot of the bed, and the sharp smell was stronger. By then I was terrified. Was Mama in this dark, queer-smelling room? If so, what for?

Then I heard Mama’s voice. “Don’t you want to see your new little brother, Hon?”

I peered toward the bed and saw my mother’s face—a light blur. A bundle of something was beside her, but all I was interested in was finding Mama again. I had not the slightest interest in a brother, new or otherwise. However, someone unwrapped the top part of the bundle and I was told to look. It was a tiny face with tightly closed eyes. I peered at it, speechless, and left the room, still speechless.

That was my introduction to my baby brother, Sam. Where had he come from? This question was put to each member of my family or anyone else I could lay hold of. I was answered with a grunt or silence until I got to my brother Frank.

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