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American Annals of the Deaf

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

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Our water source was a deep well near the kitchen door. It was fed by a spring of cold crystal clear water. The front yard of our home, like that of most farm homes of that time, was hard-packed dirt, shaded by large oak trees from which gray moss hung like old men’s dirty beards. Peach, apple, and pear trees grew in backyards or fields. Our flower yards were on each side and toward the back, a profusion of different colors. They held mainly zinnias, marigolds, cock’s combs, bachelor’s buttons, four-o’clocks, and others whose names I don’t remember. But I will never forget the tall, lavender and purple hollyhocks that grew in back of and beside our house. It was under those that I took my little brother to play.

For the next few years, most of my recollections revolve around Sam: Papa buying him a crib with rockers that he refused to sleep in, Bennie and Frank going to his bed each morning to bend over and nuzzle him or just bending over him with their eyes closed. I sometimes wondered if they were praying over him or catching a few more minutes of sleep after Papa routed them out of bed. Watching Mama nurse Sam fascinated me—it seemed a funny way to eat. This was also when I discovered the difference between the sexes. I always watched Mama change Sam’s diapers and noticed he didn’t look like I did. I asked her why.

“Because he’s a boy and you’re a girl.”

This made me fret. I wanted him to look like I did—in fact, I wanted him to be a girl. I already had three big brothers and only one sister. All of them were older and none of them had time for me. I pondered on ways to make Sam a baby sister instead of a baby brother. I decided the most logical thing was to dress him like a girl. So one sunny summer morning while playing among the hollyhocks, I told him I was going to put one of my dresses on him.

“Huh,” said Sam.

Running in the house, I got down my green Sunday dress (my best) that was hanging behind the door, my yellow hat with a narrow black ribbon that went around it and hung from the back, and last but not least, my best pair of pink silk bloomers. They had rubber around the legs. Step-ins (panties) were kept for girls in their teens. Soon all this finery adorned Brother Sam.

I beamed happily, “Now you are a little girl like me.”

“Huh,” said Sam.

His answer to everything, whether in answer to a question or a statement, was “Huh.” A man of few words was Sam.

Now I needed a name for my new sister. I pondered on this for some time, but pondered alone. Sam was too interested in himself as a girl and his finery to worry about a name. I recalled Mama reading the story of Mary and Martha in the Bible, and since I was already Mary, what better name for a sister than Martha?

“I know, I know. Martha, that’s a good name. It goes with Mary.”

“Huh.”

“Come on, Martha,” I said, taking “Martha” by the hand to go play under the pear tree in back, but around the house came Mama.


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