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The power of sign

As Sweet Honey in the Rock’s sign language interpreter, Shirley Childress dedicated her life to deaf rights.

Shirley Childress. Credit: Sharon Farmer/Washington City Paper. All rights reserved.

Shiloh Baptist Church was where Shirley Childress first understood.

She was a 10-year-old whose first language was sign, the hearing daughter of two deaf parents. Her family worshiped at Shiloh’s Silent Mission, one of the nation’s earliest ministries for the deaf and hard of hearing. One day, as her mother sang in sign for the congregation, Shirley understood.

Decades later, Shirley wrote about that moment: “She was singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ in sign so beautifully and with so much emotion that people were totally absorbed, so much so that one man was moved to tears. That was my first remembrance of seeing the power of sign.”

Shiloh Baptist Church was also where hundreds of mourners came last week to say farewell to Childress, the longtime interpreter for the African-American heritage ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, who died last week at age 69 due to complications caused by West Nile virus.

The considerable contributions of Shirley Childress reverberate far beyond the lives of those who attended her funeral.

As a deaf rights advocate, Childress championed black interpreters, the scarcity of which even now many consider a shameful facet of deaf culture. She is widely believed to have been the first African American certified American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter.

She interpreted in varied platforms: Close to home for the Mental Health Program for the Deaf at St. Elizabeths Hospital. In Kenya, under the auspices of Deafpride, Inc.’s Project Access, for a deaf delegate participating in a United Nations conference. For an off-Broadway show and for Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde. She also interpreted for the 2003 “Protest Music as Responsible Citizenship” program at The Ohio State University featuring Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, Holly Near, and Sweet Honey founder Bernice Johnson Reagon.

But Childress is best known for the decades she spent with Sweet Honey in the Rock, not merely as its interpreter, but as a full-fledged member of the group. And it was with Sweet Honey in the Rock that Childress profoundly changed the way deaf people experience music.

“Shirley took Sweet Honey in the Rock’s sound and presence and activism to another level… and brought another level of inclusion to the purpose of Sweet Honey,” says filmmaker Michelle Parkerson, producer of the 1984 documentary Gotta Make This Journey: Sweet Honey in the Rock. “People who were deaf and hard of hearing could feel the vibrations and the bass line of Sweet Honey’s music….They could understand the lyrics through Shirley. Her movements and her passion were just as strong as the other five women who comprised Sweet Honey in the Rock, and so they got it. They got Sweet Honey in the Rock’s call to political action through Shirley—for their own rights as well as for people who were physically challenged.”

The prominence of Childress as the group’s sixth member—she performed with the women on stage and was not shunted to a corner—was profoundly meaningful to deaf audiences.

“Shirley was bringing ASL to the world stage when people were still referring to members of the deaf community as either deaf and dumb or deaf mutes or handicapped,” says Raymont Anderson, one of many African American interpreters mentored by Childress. “She completely changed how people viewed that culture and community, and her visibility made her the benchmark that so many other interpreters aspired to.”

Sweet Honey in the Rock was founded in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon, the revered Civil Rights activist who performed with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers. Coming out of the Civil Rights movement, Reagon created an a capella ensemble that was rooted in African American history and culture, and the women of Sweet Honey were eloquent advocates for social justice. As the group participated in the women’s music network during the late ’70s, that movement’s focus on accessibility led to Sweet Honey’s first use of interpreters for the deaf.

Initially, using interpreters supplied by festival organizers was somewhat problematic for Sweet Honey. Festival interpreters generally liked to prepare for concerts by practicing the material. But Reagon, who drew from orally based traditions, would not prepare set lists in advance.

But there was a bigger issue. As Reagon relates in the book We Who Believe in Freedom: Sweet Honey in the Rock … Still on the Journey, there was a critical cultural chasm between Sweet Honey’s mission and the white interpreters they worked with. During one rehearsal, the interpreter signed the word “Africa” by putting her fingers through her nose to make a ring. Reagon wrote: “…to that date all of the interpreters were white and women, a decision that ignored the multi-racial makeup of local deaf communities.”

Serendipity stepped in one Sunday, when Reagon saw Dr. Ysaye Barnwell interpreting a service at All Souls’ Unitarian Church and invited her to join Sweet Honey as an interpreter. But Barnwell turned out to be an extraordinary vocalist, and thus also sang with the group. She quickly realized that it was not possible to interpret and sing simultaneously.

Barnwell had met Childress while conducting a workshop at Howard University, and she brought her to Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1980. By 1985, Sweet Honey was including photos of Childress on the group’s albums and she regularly appeared with the group for publicity shots.

“Shirley made musical performances by Sweet Honey in the Rock accessible to deaf communities,” says Barnwell, who retired from the group four years ago. “They would know what we were singing about, they would have an appreciation for aspects of the music—the language, the rhythm, the way in which we as different singers were working together, and the meaning of the songs.

“I want to thank Shirley,” adds Barnwell, “for being an amazing ray of light as part of the group which really opened the ensemble to a much broader audience.”

Toshi Reagon, Bernice’s daughter and an esteemed performer in her own right, frequently collaborated with Childress over the years. “There are a few interpreters I have worked with who are brilliantly musical. You can tell they have something to say about every sonic moment that is happening. That part of interpreting where they bring themselves and their artistry in terms of translating text from one language to another is masterful,” she says. “Shirley was exquisite at this. When you sat down with her, you learned more about what you were trying to say.”

In 1988, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf published a tribute to Childress that called her “The Mother of Songs Sung in ASL.” Of course, within the community of African-American sign language interpreters, Childress was already known as “Mama Shirley,” which had less to do her age than her achievements.

“In the black community, you call people ‘mama’ out of respect,” says Candas Ifama Barnes, a veteran interpreter at Gallaudet University who considers Childress a role model. “It’s about their status and the place they hold in the community and the respect that the community holds for them. It’s an homage.”

Childress was a founding member of National Black Deaf Advocates, and established BRIDGES, an organization assisting black deaf interpreters and their clients. She married and raised two sons. In honor of her parents, she created the Herbert and Thomasina Childress Scholarship Fund to help children of deaf adults explore sign interpreting as a profession.

“She was an advocate, founder, fighter and creator of things that are now part of black deaf community, as well as an interpreter,” says Fred Beam, a deaf educator and performer. “She closed the gap between the deaf culture and music culture and allowed deaf people to appreciate music more through ASL.”

Childress’ performances with Sweet Honey also touched audience members who can hear. Longtime fan Charlene Hamilton first attended a Sweet Honey performance more than 30 years ago. “I was totally hypnotized. They were these beautiful black women in all these colors singing a capella, and the songs they were singing had so much meaning,” she recalls. “I don’t understand signing at all, but Shirley made me feel like I did. It was magical—I felt like I was right there with her.”

For Childress, her gifts as an interpreter seemed to come from what she once perceived as a weakness. In We Who Believe in Freedom, she wrote: “I am an extremely sensitive wear-my-emotions-on-my-sleeve kind of person. I cry at the drop of a hat. Once I felt my sensitivity was a disability. I have come to appreciate it now as being something special about me. Sign interpreting Sweet Honey includes clear interpretations of the song true to its content, a poetic delivery, rhythmically in tune, emotionally sensitive in its nature, and timing commensurate with the singing… When I am successful, I am delivering it in a way that is as rapturous and as powerful as the vocal rendition.”

The loss of Childress was not the only heartbreak to hit Sweet Honey in recent months. Longtime sound engineer Art Steele died in a fatal car accident in January. Sweet Honey’s Facebook page read, “Art Steele and Shirley were with the organization longer than anyone. No words to sing this deep sorrow.”

For many, there is inspiration within the deeply felt sorrow. “It’s really the legacy that she left. By that, I mean her commitment to the work of interpreting, making things accessible for deaf and hard of hearing people and her absolute passion for that,” says Barnes, who has created a memorial scholarship fund at Gallaudet for Childress.

“She was all about making sure that deaf people had access. And she particularly cared about black deaf people being able to be their best selves, to have access at the ultimate level. She believed that we should do our best on their behalf, and that we had a responsibility to do that,” says Barnes.

“And here’s the thing: That came across much less in what she said than in how she was and what she did,” adds Barnes. “It wasn’t a job. It was a calling. It was who she was. It was her purpose.”

Donations to the Shirley Childress Memorial Scholarship Fund can be made here

This article was first published in Washington City Paper.


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