March 6, 2017-Shirley Childress passed away at the age of 69.
Childress is best known for being the first black certified ASL interpreter and as one of the members in the band Sweet Honey in The Rock. Over the course of her career, she interpreted for famous people such as Maya Angelou (writer of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings) and James Earl Jones (voice actor for Darth Vader in Star Wars.)
Born to deaf parents, Childress grew up with American Sign Language and did not understand how to connect sign language with music until she saw her mother signing along with the chorus in church. In that moment, it clicked for the young Childress–she decided she was going to be a music interpreter/performer!
After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in Deaf Education and the certification from RID (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf,) she worked tirelessly for the Deaf community and even volunteered with a group of American doctors to help children in Africa, both deaf and hearing, get medical care. However, her passion was still in music.
In the late 1970s, Childress became a full-member of the music group Sweet Honey in The Rock and toured nationally, performing every song in ASL for nearly 40 years. For perspective, this was shortly after American Sign Language was finally recognized and accepted as a unique language in 1974. Most of the concert goers were hearing, however Childress put every ounce of her efforts into encouraging deaf people to go to her shows and made sure that deaf attendees had a spot. For her, it was about inclusion and showing deaf individuals a way to appreciate music.
At every concert that the Sweet Honey in The Rock performed, there was always space for the deaf guests. Washington City Paper’s obituary included this quote:
But Childress is best known for the decades she spent with Sweet Honey in the Rock, not merely as its interpreter, but as a full-fledged member of the group. And it was with Sweet Honey in the Rock that Childress profoundly changed the way deaf people experience music.*
There was a documentary made about Sweet Honey in The Rock in 1984 called Gotta Make This Journey: Sweet Honey in the Rock, by filmmaker Michelle Parkerson.
*Washington City Paper: Shirley Childress Obituary
Sweet Honey in The Rock: http://sweethoneyintherock.org