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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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I couldn’t stand sad music though. It made me depressed and fearful. Mama’s oldest brother, Julius Vatson (also known as Buddy Vat), gave me records of concerts and classical music. No one else liked them except maybe Bennie. He also loved music, often sitting in the corner by the gramophone at night, keeping it wound up and playing record after record. I can still hear the lovely sound of “Shine On Harvest Moon,” sung by a group of Black men called the Jubilee Quartet. I can see the big, round October moon rising over the woods in front of our house, shining on the porch chairs turned against the wall for the night. I can see the shadows of the oak trees in the yard and the well at the corner of the house and smell the smoke from the oak and sweet gum logs burning in the heater. All the family would be gathered in from their day’s work, full and content. Mama would be doing some needlework, patching some of the menfolks’ overalls or shirts, or piecing a quilt together with Eunice helping her or studying. The rest of us would be sitting quiet, listening to the voice asking the moon to “shine on, for me and my gal.” I was always lost in beautiful music.

Another song I especially loved to listen to was “Carolina Moon” by Kate Smith. It went:

Carolina moon keep shining, shining on the one who cares for me. Carolina moon I’m pining, pining for the place I long to be. How I’m hoping tonight, you’ll go to the right window, Scatter your light, tell her I’m alright, please do.

The room, lit by an oil lamp, filled with worn furniture and the glowing-hot cast iron heater, may not have looked like much to some people, but for me, it was the nicest room anywhere. Surrounded by all those I loved, I felt safe, warm, and contented—like I was the richest girl in the world.

I was happy to just stay at home, play with Sam, and follow Mama around the house as she attended the various chores. One such morning as Sam was napping, I had my first experience of seeing something I couldn’t explain. I had a kitten I loved dearly—my first one. Its favorite place was napping on a sunny spot on top of our kitchen stove after it cooled off. However, my kitty died and I grieved for awhile, then things went on as usual. This particular morning, Mama had washed dishes and cleaned the kitchen, then moved on to make beds, with me right at her heels, running my mouth. I got hungry and Mama told me to go in the kitchen and look for a biscuit or something in the pie safe (where baked goods were stored). As I entered the kitchen, I stopped. There was my kitty sleeping in his usual spot of sun.

Delighted to see him, I shrieked to Mama, “Here’s my kitty come back to me!”

As I did so, he raised his head, looked at me, then jumped to the floor, running behind the wood box with me in pursuit. Though I searched the kitchen, he was nowhere to be found. Mama told me it was just my imagination, that my kitty was dead and couldn’t come back. Nonetheless, I knew he had. For me, seeing was believing, but I kept that to myself

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