Shirley Childress Saxton was born and reared in Washington DC. A child of deaf parents, Herbert and Thomasina Childress, American Sign Language (ASL) is her first language. Thus, Ms. Saxton is an intimate, integrated part of the Deaf community. Although the vast majority of CODAs [children of Deaf adults] can sign, fewer have interpreting skills. Shirley Childress Saxton ranks among that number. A subset of the interpreting CODAs actually study the discipline professionally and obtain certified interpreter status. Ms. Saxton accomplished that. Further still, Shirley Childress Saxton is a bona fide artist in her own right. As a performance artist, she gives life to an incredibly varied repertoire of songs and poems.
Ms. Saxton holds a bachelor’s degree in Deaf Education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has done graduate work at the University of the District of Columbia. She is a member of Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf[RID]. She has interpreted in many venues, including education, theological, employment, legal, medical, performing arts and music.
In the DC area, Ms. Saxton is well known. During her beginning years of interpreting she served at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, DC. She has taught introductory ASL classes and master workshops on interpreting music across the country.
Ms. Saxton has international recognition as the interpreter for Sweet Honey in the Rock. ‘Sweet Honey’ comprises six women. They interpret the full range of music by people of color. American spirituals, work songs, civil rights songs, shouts, and folk songs are re-discovered, documented, and performed by ‘Sweet Honey’. This same genre of spirit songs and life songs is gleaned from Africa and Latin America as well. These songs round out the palate of Sweet Honey in the Rock.
‘Sweet Honey’ interprets the songs in their original historical context and contemporizes the allegories for today’s relevance. The songs are generally rendered a cappella and always rendered in five-part harmony -- ASL and four vocal ranges. Sweet Honey in the Rock has a loyal and avid following in most states of the U.S., the countries of Africa and of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Hearing and Deaf fans are fervent in their support of Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Shirley Childress Saxton’s contribution to ASL performance art cannot be overestimated. As an artist, as a CODA, as a woman, as a person of color, as a member of Sweet Honey, as Shirley Childress Saxton she was in exactly the right place with exactly the correct skills and exactly the necessary temperament to define what it means to express poems and music via ASL. As a member of the Deaf community, she had the deep appreciation for and understanding of the community. As a hearing person of color, music is her birthright and an integral part of her. As a woman, she brought intuitiveness and mother wit to the table. As an artist, she understood instinctively how to use her media [ASL and her body as an instrument]. As a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock, she had a world-wide platform to show hearing and Deaf, American and non-American that concepts and rhythms can flow through both vocal cords and hands.
As a result, Ms. Saxton ‘wrote the book’ on performance interpreting of music and poetry. She has been honored by RID, Women Unlimited, Deafpride, Silent Mission at Shiloh Baptist, and other organizations. All interpreters and particularly interpreters of color owe a debt of gratitude to Ms. Saxton for her continued highly visible professionalism.