When Majella Mark was left unable to speak because of health problems, she felt alone and excluded. But on discovering New York’s hearing impaired community, she made new friends and learned to communicate in a way she never had before.
You really learn to appreciate having a voice when you lose it. The voice is something many of us take for granted. We have it as this natural occurrence that’s just a part of us. Many years ago I gained a life lesson I will never forget, one that had me see the hearing impaired community in a new light. An experience that forced me to communicate in a different way. A lesson I am still grateful for.
I learnt to appreciate those who get their point across a little differently. Those who have to get your attention when they don’t have the chords to express themselves. Some of the most honest people I have ever had the pleasure of speaking with are those people forget about: the deaf and mute.
The last year of my undergraduate course was difficult. I developed tumors in my respiratory system that eventually prevented me from speaking. For the next couple of years I went in and out of operating rooms and speech therapy, and eventually stopped speaking all together due to my periodic relapses. It was excruciating to be surrounded by chatter, laughter, and singing with no possible way of fully participating. Being new to New York in my twenties, I should have been exploring and enjoying life to the full. Instead I felt excluded and lonely.
Eventually I decided to look at my situation from the perspective of those who probably felt the same way. I embarked on a journey to learn American Sign Language, and began to participate in the hearing impaired community. For many years I took ASL lessons while maneuvering my silence, and then eventually as my voice came back I continued to hang out with people in the community. I built lasting friendships, but also learned a lot about the injustices hearing impaired people of color faced. There was an obvious dismissal of black and brown people in the community, who not only have to face the challenges of being deaf, but also the challenges of getting through the world as a person of color at risk of experiencing severe police brutality and discrimination for resources.
Imagine being outside with your friends, and facing mockery from people who don’t even know you. Imagine trying to be taken seriously as a film director, only to be turned down time after time because the entertainment industry doesn’t see money in art that is created through the eyes of someone who can’t hear sound. Imagine being catcalled while having a drink at the bar, to then have that drink spilled on you because the jerk thought you were ignoring them. Imagine being completely lost during conference calls, town hall meetings, devotionals, doctor appointments and classes because there isn’t an interpreter available to you. These are the types of situations that occur. Now imagine you are a black hearing impaired person who has been stopped by the police. You don’t know what they’re saying and you’re trying to explain that you can’t hear them, but they just see you as someone who is not complying with their orders.
When society thinks about involvement for the betterment of the whole, many forget about those who deal with life very differently: the mentally ill, the seeing and hearing impaired, and many others with different disabilities. They are usually forgotten about when it comes to political concerns, culture shifts and social contribution. Because of this they don’t have to be politically correct, polite and coy. What you get instead is directness, passion and honesty. The deaf community don’t beat around the bush, because they don’t have the language to do so. There aren’t alternative or mild words to soften the blow of what’s being said. What they say is exactly what they mean and because of this you can have deep, honest conversations with authenticity and love.
Without my experience of being mute, I would not have gained insight on the necessity of speaking my truth. Now, I live my life saying exactly what I mean with kindness and clarity. Being raw in my deep conversations with the people I care about is the only way I can guarantee improvement in my relationships within my community. Biting my tongue when I see injustice – such as the injustice experienced by hearing impaired people of color – or feel pain or have a passion for something is not an option. For that period of time when I had no voice, I learned to appreciate every word I said with directness and honesty.
About Majella Mark
Majella Mark is a researcher and artist who has created pieces for many art exhibitions including Tiny Pricks and Visual Aids. She has also conducted numerous social justice workshops such as “The Wakanda Workshop”, which addresses racial inequalities using Marvel’s Black Panther as a cultural reference and the “Pvssy Plate Painting Party” to address gender inequalities and the objectification of the female body inspired by Judy Chicago’s art piece, The Dinner Party. Majella is involved with many organisations, including Support Creativity, Black Women’s BluePrint and others. She is also head of data for Womanly Magazine and Womanly Health. With her sister Sherrie Mark she founded the creative house Met God, She’s Black that consists of a podcast, online community, events, art activism and collaborations. Follow Majella on Twitter @MajellaMark and Instagram @majellamark
This piece was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages