Sweet Honey in the Rock, with Shirley Childress, performs "Wade in the Water"
Now American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters for deaf and hearing impaired music fans at concerts are no longer uncommon--but not so much so when Shirley Childress joined Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1980.
But even though she remained silent, Childress, who died March 6, was indispensable to the historic African-American female a cappella vocal group's concerts. Figuratively speaking, of course, no one sang louder.
"What an amazing gift Shirley gave not only to the deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences but to our fans worldwide," the surviving Sweet Honey members--vocalists Carol Maillard, Aisha Kahlil, Louise Robinson and Nitanju Bolade Casel—wrote on the group's website.
"Her presence was beautiful, immense and electrifying! An article was written about her a few years back and she was described as the 'mother of sign.' We certainly agree. When we introduced her on stage we called her 'our sign language interpreter extraordinaire.'"
Indeed, Childress did more than sign. Her hands and facial expressions, in fact, her entire upper body both visually enacted the lyrics and intent of Sweet Honey's songs—for hearing viewers as well as hard-of. As one Sweet Honey Facebook friend posted, "Shirley opened the door for many deaf people to have access to your music. It also opened the door about giving language equivalent to the deaf where music is concerned. Her work is not forgotten but I see it in other music venues by interpreters who saw her work. God is lucky to have her signing in his/her presence."
Facebooked another: "Ms. Childress' joy in signing always made it seem like she was singing along with you."
Childress learned ASL from her deaf parents, and in their honor later founded the Herbert and Thomasina Childress Scholarship Fund to assist other children of deaf adults to explore sign interpreting as a work option. She provided interpreting services for virtually every life experience—high school and college learning, professional conferences, religious services, etc.—and interpreted with organizations including the United Nations and various health programs.
Besides Sweet Honey, she interpreted in the off-Broadway production of Lost in the Stars, and with numerous artists including Sweet Honey founder Bernice Johnson Reagon, Pete Seeger and Holly Near, as well as such writers as Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. Additionally, she founded the organization BRIDGES to focus attention on black deaf consumers and interpreters, and was a founding member of the organization Black Deaf Advocates.
She was honored by The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf with a tribute feature entitled Shirley Childress Johnson, the Mother of Songs Sung in ASL, and was also the recipient of awards from deaf advocacy organizations like the Silent Mission Circle at Shiloh Baptist Church, Deafpride, Inc., Women Unlimited, and National R.I.D. Interpreters of Color. The National Alliance of Black Interpreters bestowed upon her its Trailblazer Award.
"Shirley gave so much of her spirit, grace, love and being to her work with Sweet Honey," the group wrote. "She was dedicated. She spent time before and after a show communicating with deaf and hard-of-hearing fans. Taught us phrases and words in sign language so we could be in tune with her singing and signing. Because of Shirley, deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences have had access to the wonderful music and empowering messages that Sweet Honey gives to the world."