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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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At sight of Sam, she stopped and stared in wonder at her baby son—then came the blast. When it was over, “Martha” was once again Sam and my Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes were back behind the door. Mama also made sure my ears were full of words.

I think it was about this time that Bennie became ill with some kind of fever, malaria or typhoid. He was very sick and I remember Mama’s worry and how she tended to him. I’d go look at him lying there in the bed with the tall wooden headboard. He was so thin and quiet. What I remember most about his illness is that Mama had to teach him to walk all over again once he was able to get out of bed. Sam was also learning to walk at this time. She gave each of them a stick for support, then got between them, and up and down the porch they went. Mama’s eyes were shining with happiness. Her first- and last-born sons, learning to walk together. God had spared Bennie and now she was helping both boys learn to walk.

Aside from my family, other people have a special place in my heart and childhood days—Mary Elizabeth (or Mary Lizzie as we called her); her mom, Mrs. Helen Smith; and her stepfather, Willie Smith. The Smiths lived in town, but my parents raised Mary Lizzie on our farm. I don’t know why they raised her, but I think it was because her mother worked and had no place to leave her. We all loved her dearly. She was a tall, pretty girl.

Mrs. Helen and Mr. Smith once took me to a circus, the only one I’ve ever been to. There I saw my first elephant, tiger, and lion. I was thrilled speechless, afterward, I traveled back to the car perched high on Mr. Smith’s shoulder. When I was at home again with my family, the circus was all I could talk about. Someone asked me if I’d been afraid of the lions and other animals. I was indignant.

“What do you think I am—a fool?” (This was a favorite expression of my idol, Mr. Smith.)


This from Mama, followed by a good dressing-down. Fool was classified with all the swear words we were forbidden to use or we’d end up in eternal fire along with the devil.

When she was grown enough to be on her own, Mary Lizzie moved to town to live with her parents. She learned to drive and used her dad’s car to come out to see us often. I’d also go stay with them—more happy memories. Being in town was exciting. Theirs was a neat white house on the eastern side of town, with electric lights, an oil stove (instead of wood) for cooking, and a large gramophone or “talking machine” with legs (better known now as a record player). You could put on a record, wind it up with a crank, then close the top, making the music low and muted. And how exciting the house smelled—a mixture of cigarette smoke, oil stove, perfume, and whiskey. At home the chief smell was food cooking, coffee perking, and wood smoke from the heater and the kitchen stove. I loved that smell too. It meant “home.”

I loved going uptown on summer afternoons with Mary Lizzie or Mrs. Helen. They’d use a little Vaseline to twist my hair in long sausage curls, and I got to wear a pretty dress, and shoes and socks in summer, on weekdays! How grand I felt, wishing Sam could see me stroll along Front Street. Mr. Smith owned the barbershop on Back Street. The lotions, talc powder, and hair tonics smelled so good. We’d wait for him to close up, then get in the car to ride back to the house, where he’d carry me in on his shoulder.

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