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Shirley Childress Johnson: Music Without Sound

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Tuesday January 09, 2018

From The New York Times Magazine

The Lives They Lived: Shirley Childress Johnson
By: Samantha M Shapiro

Shirley Childress Johnson became a professional sign-language interpreter at a time when the number of black sign-language interpreters was vanishingly small. The work was personal: Johnson’s parents were deaf; she learned English and American Sign Language simultaneously. She was profoundly aware of the joys of deaf culture, which demands full face-to-face engagement, as well as the urgency of making basic information accessible to the community. She attended births, trials and presidential inaugurations. She interpreted for Maya Angelou and pro bono for people she met on the street. She wrote that she took in other people’s pain deeply when she translated and struggled to “ventilate her feelings.”

She viewed that emotional sensitivity as a liability in her work, until one day it turned out to be an asset. In 1980, she was invited to work with Sweet Honey in the Rock, the internationally acclaimed African-American women’s a cappella ensemble, who perform lush, intricate arrangements of protest songs, wordless chants, spirituals and poems. The group was started in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon, a preacher’s daughter and a founding member of the S.N.C.C. Freedom Singers, which traveled around the country sharing news about the civil rights movement. The church where Reagon grew up in Albany, Ga., did not have a piano, so she learned her earliest lessons about what music is for and where its power lies by singing unaccompanied; eliminating instruments and paring sound down to just the voice allowed it to unfurl its full range and to join with others more completely.

Read more about Shirley Childress Johnson here