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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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While visiting Cousin Beulah’s family, I made friends with a plump, older girl named Lucy. She took me with her to church to practice for a play, to someone’s house to pick plums, and to other places. Most of my excursions with Lucy were made in a purple taffeta slip. Mama had made me a “best dress” from purple organdy, all fancy with ruffles, lace, and bows; the slip went with it. I knew better than to put on the dress for anything less than church services or some big event, so I wore what I considered the next best thing: the slip. I’d also wear my black patent leather Sunday shoes and white socks, and away I’d go with Lucy.

The visit was pleasant and I hated for it to end, but soon I was once again on the train going back home. A wonderful and fearful thing to ride, it huffed, puffed, chooed, and hissed out steam. A bell clanged while black smoke puffed up as it moved along very slowly, then picked up speed. Soon it was rocking down the rails like mad. I saw people go up front and pull down a white paper cup to get a drink of water. I longed to do the same but didn’t dare leave the safety of my seat beside Cousin Beulah. At that time, she lived out on the highway with Cap Jack, his parents, and his cousin Jessie Mae.

Cap’s mother was my mama’s sister, and next to Mama I loved her more than any other woman I’ve known. We called her Sis Ette, and she was so sweet and gentle. I especially remember her hair. It was very soft, and strands would come out from the knot she wore it in and curl around her glasses on her forehead. She always called me “Hon” and would give me a pinch of snuff for running to get it down from a shelf and carrying it to her. This was done secretly as Mama had a horror of both snuff and the box it came in. To her, both were nasty. Sis Ette showed me how to put it in my cheek and pack it down, then spit. Most of mine came out with the spit. All of it had to be out before I got home or I’d get a real switching. Mama finally broke me from snuff by filling my mouth and lips with it and making me sit out in the hot sun and swallow the whole mess. Boy, was I sick! I heaved and heaved, and cried and heaved some more. I was cured.

Then there was Cap’s father, Cousin Archie—short and partly bald with a thick black mustache. His morning ritual was to put on his clothes, then go to the end of the porch by the kitchen door and wash his face and hair (or head). This was done summer and winter. In the winter, when ice was in the water bucket, he’d crack the ice and wash in it anyway; he was real tough. His name for both me and Jessie Mae was “Little Gal.” I didn’t mind being a little gal, but Jessie Mae always protested.

“But Uncle Archie, I’m not a gal. A gal lives in a mule or horse stable,” she’d say.

She was about twelve and fat, with red hair and green eyes, and everything tickled her. She’d laugh and laugh until her face was red and shiny with tears. She spent a lot of time playing house with me. I loved her too.

Another love of my life was, and still is, music. All kinds, but my favorites have always been the classics. No words, just music—loud, wild, and wonderful. If it was gay and lifting, I’d close my eyes and imagine sunshine, blue skies, flowers, and birds singing, and I’d feel happy. As a child, I just had to dance. I made up my own dance of hops, leaps, and skips. I had a really wild record going one day and was dancing my heart out when Eunice came in unexpectedly and caught me doing one of my originals. She laughed and laughed and said I looked for all the world like a one-legged chicken hopping up and down. I screeched and cried and begged her not to tell anybody, but my chicken-hop dance became a big joke among the family and friends, all except Mama. She just smiled a little and told me to dance if I wanted to and I did, but I made sure I was alone.

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