In the past I reviewed A Loss for Words by Lou Ann Walker (she/her), who is a CODA, which stands for Child Of a Deaf Adult. Walker, a white woman, was born in 1952. In the memoir On the Beat of Truth, author Maxine Childress Brown (she/her), who is also a CODA, is a black woman born in 1943. She shares stories about her parents, both black Deaf individuals, raising her and her two sisters near Washington, D.C..
Childress Brown delivers both her mother’s and father’s history growing up in a memorable way. Each parent had a stand-out story that I can easily recall weeks after finishing (her father murdered someone, her mother was a fashionista). Both parents went to a Deaf residential schools, a contrast to the way Deaf children are now mainstreamed into public schools. In her parents’ stories, the author incorporates information about her grandparents. Rather than a linear tale for both folks, Childress Brown weaves a narrative-driven, yet clear, family tree.
Because interpreters were not legally required, when the father is taken to court because a girl said some man exposed his genitals to her on the street, Childress Brown, at six years old, was asked to interpret for her father. She says she can, and the court takes her word for it. A standard for interpreters, including training in ethics, did not yet exist. Instead, it was common for family, clergy, and teachers of the Deaf to volunteer to interpret. Not only is the courtroom scene illegal by today’s laws, but the reason her father was accused is embarrassing to him (he was innocent and no hard evidence was presented). This stand-out scene in the courtroom is a reminder that history is right in the review mirror.
Maybe it was that effort to capture the time period, but if Childress Brown as a child didn’t get something she wanted, like more candy, she might writes, “Aw, shucks!” in the narration. Had it been written in dialogue, I might have taken to it, but instead the writing could sound a bit after-school-special.
Eventually, and rather suddenly, the father is characterized as a drunk who could easily kill the author when she was in high school. The connection between different systems of oppression, perhaps what her father faced on a daily basis, aren’t as clear when the author focuses on her own stories about being called stinky at school or the summer she spent with her grandmother. I point this out because the subtitle is “A Hearing Daughter’s Stories of her Black Deaf Parents.” Could Childress Brown have reflected more on the gradual change in her father?
Do read On the Beat of Truth. So few stories about Deaf people exist, let alone black Deaf parents pre-1960s, so expect an educational experience.
CW: threats of physical violence, racism, miscarriage, ableism