On the Beat of Truth by Maxine Childress Brown

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.

Rather than writing about family history in an autobiographical fashion (“Just the facts”), Childress Brown chooses anecdotes that allow the reader to see how being black, Deaf, poor, educated, and living before the Civil Rights Movement are all intersections where her parents exist. Her mother has the added label of “woman,” which shapes the mother’s story when she is fired for becoming a teacher while married (she lies about it). Also, the author’s grandmother leaves her husband and children because she’s worn down with motherhood and a cheating spouse and needs a mental health break.

The author captures a time period foreign to some 21st century readers. Poverty prevents the Childress family from seeking adequate medical care, and their skin color further limits their choice of doctors pre-Civil Rights Movement (though I don’t pretend the 1960s fixed these issues, it is a period familiar to most readers). Then, what about a black Deaf doctor, someone who knows ASL? ASL wasn’t officially recognized as a language until 1960, and a law requiring a business provide an interpreter didn’t happen until the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The issues are layered.

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?

recommendation

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

15 comments

    • Interestingly, I don’t think a LOT of this history exists, which makes Childress Brown’s book doubly exciting. Gallaudet Press (from Gallaudet University, the premier Deaf university in the world) publishes all kinds of unread stories.

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  1. I wish the moviegoing market craved stories like these rather than trying to pick at the same wounds repeatedly. I can only imagine the layers of tension in those moments in the court room, for example. I know I could read the book, but I am curious whether the subject matter means it would be more compelling if seen and not described. I struggle to imagine the expression of a child who is trying to convey those things to her father, then trying to pass back his responses. Did she know that the accuracy of her interpretation could determine whether he father was convicted? How did that pressure affect her? Did she make choices to influence things given that she was not a professional and obviously had a stake in the situation? Wild. I am glad that you found this story.

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    • She was six when this happened, and the story seemed like she wanted to help her dad while understanding very little of what was happening. I do wish there were more movies told like this. I’ve read a few articles about how there are more movies about the Black experience, but they almost always center around a feel-good story of slavery or the Civil Rights Movement.

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  2. This sounds really interesting albeit difficult to read. It’s a shame that the ending is so abrupt though.

    When I was talking recently with a group of student nurses about children translating for parents and the complex ethics involved, I remembered some of the books that you have reviewed about this topic and made sure I discussed BSL interpreters, removing masks for lipreading etc – normally I only talk about oral translation, so thank you for the prompt! The students found it really interesting and we discussed how some of their placements have tried to accommodate Deaf adults during the pandemic.

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    • Oh, Lou!! I love this and feel a bit misty-eyed thinking that my reviews have done some good. In interpreting class we talk a lot about where to stand (typically near the doctor or nurse), how to dress (sold colors, no red/orange colors), where are the windows, etc. Let me know if you have any questions, and if I don’t know I’ll ask my professor.

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  3. Oh wow, that courtroom scene sounds very memorable. I can’t quite imagine a little kid having to do that and yet so many kids have had to and still do translate for their parents (whether deaf or because they speak another language). As you say, history is not far behind us.

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    • In the Deaf community, people who interpreted were family members, church people, or teachers of the Deaf. This was before interpreting was a profession and done as a helper/volunteer situation. Now, with it being a profession with a code of ethics, we see the issues with the daughter interpreting. Plus, with the Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S., Deaf people have a right to a trained interpreter and can refuse hearing members who are told to translate.

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  4. Wow, so much to unpack here. That courtroom scene? My gosh, the things some people experienced just blows my mind. I couldn’t imagine being a child and put in that situation or even putting a child in that situation as an adult myself! That Aw Shucks thing would bother me a bit too, as would the jump in the father’s depiction. Sometimes I find it fascinating that even a single sentence would help explain these gaps I find in books, and it happens more often than not!

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    • True, and editor or other reader just pushing a bit. When I read Jenny Lawson’s memoir Furiously Happy, I remember thinking it was much more thoughtful than her first book. There was actually a scene she wrote in which her husband told her she has to delve into the hard stuff, and she says she doesn’t want to, and he replies something like then why write at all??

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