Thursday, August 27, 2009

A conversation with Sweet Honey's sign language interpreter

By Orla Swift
Sarah P. Duke Gardens

For almost 30 years, Shirley Childress Saxton has been interpreting Sweet Honey in the Rock concerts in American Sign Language. And the Grammy-winning D.C.-based a cappella ensemble has an ardent following in the deaf community.

But to many people – deaf and hearing alike – the notion of deaf people attending a concert still seems strange. After all, isn’t a concert all about sound?

Not solely, Childress says.

She will prove this by example Sunday, when Duke Gardens and Duke Performances present Sweet Honey in the Rock for a free concert on the South Lawn at 4 p.m. (Full concert info here.)

Childress, who is the daughter of deaf parents but not deaf herself, fell in love with musical sign language interpretation watching her mother sign hymns in church.

Childress also serves as an interpreter in academic, social service and other assignments. But she says interpreting music is a unique challenge.

“I try to let go of Shirley the person and let the song claim its space and do its work,” she wrote in an essay for “We Who Believe in Freedom: Sweet Honey in the Rock…Still On the Journey,” by Sweet Honey founder Bernice Johnson Reagon.

“I continuously work to develop a more poetic style. It is the same concept as singers taking voice lessons; they are always trying to improve style and technique. It requires keeping focused on the message, on the person who is receiving the message, on the deaf audience.”

In a telephone interview this week, Childress shared some more thoughts about her vocation. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

On skepticism in the deaf community about the value of attending a concert:
"For many deaf people, there’s still a feeling that music and singing is not something that they’re initially interested in. … Right from the initial invitation of ‘Come see this event,’ it’s like, ‘Oh, boring. Songs and hearing people and their music. Enough already.’

"And I understand that, I do understand that. I turn on TV myself sometimes, and if there are people who are in a rock band, I’ll just turn off the sound, and I’ll say, ‘This is boring.’ If there’s nobody sign interpreting and there are just these mouths moving and bodies shaking, I’m just like, ‘OK, where’s the animal channel?’ "

On Sweet Honey vibrations:
"For deaf people, their residual hearing ranges. And some people who are profoundly deaf will experience the concert in a different way. Some people have been known to bring balloons to a concert to help conduct the vibrations. There’s no huge vibrational content as in a rock band; it’s voice. But there is some vibration. And especially if there are chairs, and if the chairs or benches have wooden arms or if there’s a wooden floor, they do convey the vibration."

On silent applause:
"Clapping is a sound-based way of applause. When you see deaf people applauding, their hands are stretched up to the sky, sometimes all the way up high, straight up, or just slightly raised. And you’re twisting your hand, your palm."

On changing attitudes:
"There’s still discrimination, intentional or unintentional, even to this day. We’ve passed laws – the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Vocational Rehab Act; there’ve been a number of laws that have been passed in terms of civil rights for people with disabilities. So that has changed the face of the outward discrimination.

"But there’s still an attitudinal discrimination that many deaf people have experienced. And even to the present day, deaf people still have to overcome the attitudinal barrier, the communication barrier. But the attitudinal barrier precedes the communication barrier. If a person has an attitude that says, ‘I want to communicate with you,’ they will find ways – a smile, a gesture, a hug, writing a note back and forth. But if they have an attitude that says, ‘I can’t deal with you. I won’t deal with you,’ that’s the first barrier."

On the differences between signing a speech and a song:
"A song has movement. So the sign language interpreter is moving inside the song. The only thing I can visualize is a tree standing still and a tree in movement when the wind blows. It depends on the feeling, the emotion that the song is portraying. And it’s similar in terms of a speech; if a person is conveying a strong, passionate speech or is slow to speak or is angry about something or has intense feelings about something, the interpreter is trying to convey that."

On the lessons of a Sweet Honey concert:
"We learn not through textbooks only, or in a classroom, but we learn through experiences we have in life, the rich experience of having an open mind and an open heart, of being able to share in this life experience. …

"Sweet Honey’s conversation with the audience can range from topics of political interest – 'Ain’t Gonna Study War No More' – to sexual abuse, to financial topics, hunger. The range of topics is of universal human interest."

On silent music:
"Deaf people sing in church, in celebration, worshipping God and spirituality. Deaf people sing the blues, in a sense of expressing emotion. Singing is a language in rhythm and poetic expression. And so deaf people sing. My mom sings. Even today, as we travel about, or just in conversation, she will look up at the sky and say, ‘Oh, beautiful moon and stars,’ and break out into song in sign language about the beauty of God’s nature.

"So deaf people do the same kind of celebration in song, of humanity, in celebration of love of family, in religious experience and whatever kind of experience in which people express themselves in a heartfelt way. That’s what I look at songs and singing as being, a message from the heart, spirit to spirit. It’s not just vocal, it’s a message."

Read Saxton’s full biography here.

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