Black Poetry, American Sign Language, and Access: An Interview with Cynthia Norman

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As the Coronavirus pandemic pushed many organizations and industries to convert to online platforms rather quickly, the need to center disability and access in everyday practices took center stage. The concerns these conversations raised were not new. If anything, the pandemic made more apparent the difficulties people with disabilities encounter when trying to engage in physical and online spaces. Having to adjust to new virtual working and social environments during a public health crisis made people without disabilities understand how attention to access and inclusion benefit everyone.

Since September 2020, Cave Canem has been working with American Sign Language interpreter Cynthia Norman to address some of the needs of our audiences and to make our spaces more inclusive for presenters. Over the course of the partnership, Norman’s expertise and experience within the arts has been crucial to Cave Canem’s understanding of the value of interpretation, how subtitles cannot replace the level of communication interpreters provide, and the need to include artists with disabilities in programs in meaningful ways and prioritize their needs and experiences. Not to mention, audience members love the energy she brings and the passion she puts into her work. In this interview, Norman discusses her experiences as an interpreter and details the importance of having Black interpreters in and out of Black spaces.


How did you get interested in American Sign Language (ASL)? How long have you been an interpreter and what kind of services do you offer?

I originally started learning Sign Language before there was an American Sign Language (ASL).  I learned a very English structured Sign Language from a Deaf family who noticed that I had some issues with my hearing.  They inquired of my parents (through written notes) what was going on with me.  My parents explained that since birth I was able to hear well from my right ear, but I was not able to hear from my left ear. The Deaf family was so excited at the thought that I might one day become fully Deaf, (Most Deaf people are happy to be identified as Deaf, they take pride in their culture and language), that they asked my parents if they could teach me Sign Language.  Of course, my parents thought that would be a great thing for me to learn and they allowed me, (my parents were strict and did not let me go nowhere with nobody), to go spend time at this Deaf family’s home.  I picked up the language so fast that they quickly started asking me to accompany them to Dr visits, school appointments and other spaces to interpret for them. Back in the day you interpreted for free as a form of reciprocity for the Deaf even sharing their language and culture with you as a hearing person. While in my teens, the Deaf community took over their language and incorporated structures in the language that actually now met the needs of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community with their own linguistics and grammatical structures which emerged as American Sign Language.

I began truly interpreting at the age of 13, now here I am thirty-five years later still loving the culture, the language, the people, the community that took me in and made me family in their world. I offer my services in all facets of the profession. When you think of everything you do in your daily life, know that Deaf and Hard of Hearing people are doing the exact same things that you are doing. The only difference is they cannot hear and will utilize the services of an ASL interpreter to make sure that access is equitable for them to do all the same things that hearing people do. So when you think of doctor appointments, hospital stays, business meetings, performances, concerts, poetry spaces, protests, marches, an array of webinars, workshops and trainings, job interviews, interacting with customers on the job, giving birth, undergoing surgeries, getting hired, getting fired, taking classes, funerals, weddings, court, jail, immigration, federal government, working for President Obama, interpreting, you name it—Deaf people are there and utilizing the services of an ASL interpreter like me.


Cave Canem was referred to you by another interpreter, and you have also put us in touch with two other talented interpreters. Can you talk about your network of interpreters and the difference it makes when there is a Black interpreter working in a Black Space?

Understand that in most of my years as an interpreter, my sister (also a certified ASL interpreter) and I were the only Black interpreters I knew. Eventually my cousin also became a certified interpreter so then I personally knew three.  In fact, for about the first 29 years of my interpreting career I worked around no other Black interpreters. I mean I knew they existed, but I had never seen them.  It is not to say that we are not out here because we are, but not in large numbers. The certifying organization for interpreters, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, shared in their 2019 annual report that of its 14 thousand plus interpreter members in the United States, there were only a little under 600 Black interpreters. This speaks to representation. We say representation matters, and it matters for the Black Deaf community as well.

I have so many times had interpreting agencies (businesses, typically white-owned), never offer assignments to me, until Black History Month when all the Blackity Black workshops, plays, concerts, and events start popping up. Then they come out of the woodwork and hunt Black interpreters down to put us in spaces that are more culturally appropriate for us to interpret. Keep in mind they did not, and still don’t prefer to use us Black interpreters, because they felt entitled to place white interpreters in Black spaces without a second thought.  Or they feel our natural Black hair and Black skin are “unprofessional” to be front and center as an interpreter. As Black people have fought and advocated for safe spaces, and especially Black Deaf and Black interpreters, there is a growing understanding that white interpreters should not be inserting themselves into spaces based on their white privilege that really should be protected for Black people. For years, and even still today, Black children do not see themselves as or aspire to be ASL interpreters because they do not see themselves reflected in the career. The visible interpreters were, and most times still are ALWAYS white.  And there are even less Black male interpreters in the profession. The number of Black certified male interpreters in the whole United States is less than 70. Yes: 7.0. What percentage is that of the 14 thousand plus number of interpreters in the country? So, representation definitely matters.

Spaces like Cave Canem uplift the voices of Black Poets, who bring raw stories of the experience of being a Black human living, breathing, loving, playing, hurting, struggling, fighting, and feeling our way through life to life. Stories and truth that white interpreters could not possibly grasp the understanding or capture the emotion and pain of the poet because it is simply not their experience. And it does not matter if your kids are Black, or your partner is Black, or you grew up around Black people, or you have five Black Friends……YOU DO NOT COMPREHEND OUR STORY OR OUR LEGACY.  Can you imagine a white interpreter interpreting Fences with Denzel Washington?  Do you recall how many times they used the “N” word in that movie?!  Now imagine a white interpreter signing all that Black lingo and interpreting the “N” word throughout the whole performance. Imagine the impact of that on Black Deaf people who have been oppressed dually by hearing people and white people. There is vicarious trauma embedded in that experience.

I had an interpreting agency in Washington DC tell me they did not know where to find Black interpreters. Wait! What? You cannot find Black interpreters in “Chocolate City!!!” That is a whole lie! (Yes, I actually said that.) It was then that I began an inspired journey, following in the footsteps of a Black interpreter named Wanda Newman, of creating a directory of Black interpreters from around the United States. Wanda Newman created the very first in a series of Directories of Black ASL interpreters, affectionately known as The Blue Book, back in the late 1990’s. So, with her in mind and after talking with her about her journey, I sent calls through social media networks and through the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, to get Black interpreters represented in what will now be an international directory of Black interpreters. Currently I am looking for sponsors and donors to support the creation of this history book in the making. This directory will show not only that Black interpreters exist in this profession, but will declare the relevance of the Black Deaf experience through Black interpreters and in some places showcase the need to view the Deaf as deserving of equal access and to see ASL interpreting as a viable career for the purpose of creating access to equal citizens whose only difference is they cannot hear. I have a lot of organizations and spaces that reach out to me for interpreting assignments, and I cannot be everywhere at the same time, but I can provide access to hundreds of Black interpreters from around the world who are outstanding, qualified, certified and “get” our people. So, if you are an organization that is interested and able to donate towards my work, I would love to connect with you and can make sure that your donation is noted as a donation to a 501c3 organization. If you are looking for Black interpreters in your spaces, please reach out to me and I can help you to provide access without you having to pay overhead costs to white owned interpreting agencies by connecting you directly with Black interpreters. If you would like to learn about making your spaces more accessible to Deaf people, I am happy to point you in the right direction. You can reach me at [email protected].


Are there any challenging parts to being an interpreter? What has been some of the most rewarding moments?

Wow! Great question. The challenge as an interpreter is to remember why we do this work.  That it is never about us as hearing interpreters. It is about Deaf humans having the right to be in any space they choose to be in and have not just access, but seamless access. See, you cannot just put someone who knows ASL in as an interpreter and think that you have done your duty. Take Cave Canem, for example. This is a rich and deeply moving Black poet space. Poetry has twists and turns in words, thought, meaning, symbolism, abstract and compelling speeds and forces and ranges. For example, when the poet says, “I lay on the ground so deeply consumed by earth that I no longer existed” (whew I just made that up!!), the poet is not talking about laying down on the ground, the poet is describing the act of seeing yourself be dead and buried. As an interpreter I cannot just start signing the words I hear. I must understand the meaning and I have a duty to convey that meaning so the Deaf audience can be moved and compelled to leave their physical way of thinking and be transformed to where the poet is now buried. So, it takes some love of poetry, some love and understanding of the play on words and the deeper meaning of EVERYTHING that a poet has at their fingertips to force you to feel what they are sharing.

Some of my most rewarding moments are when Deaf people receiving access from me are smiling, laughing, crying, angry, pissed the fuck off, depressed, hysterical, inquisitive, pensive and all the other feelings at the exact same moment as the hearing audience. Then I know equal access has been provided.


Many of our presenters love working with you, and our audiences enjoy seeing your work in the space. What has been your experience working with Cave Canem and its audience?

First, thank you to the presenters, the audience and especially Malcolm Tariq for making my journey with Cave Canem such a smooth and beautiful blessing. I am grateful to be able to share space with amazing poets and members of the Cave Canem team. I truly enjoy each and every event with Cave Canem.  I get to stretch my mind and my ways of interpreting in ways that I love and that make me a better interpreter. This is a very deep space and for that reason I am very selective when I select interpreters to replace me when I cannot be here. That is the honor that I give to Cave Canem space.

Also know that I do see your messages in the Zoom chat and appreciate seeing the love from the audience when I am working. It lets me know we are all connected, and I really do appreciate that.


Do you have a relationship with poetry?

Yes! I have always been the type of person who loved words. Having a dad who was always a public speaker, I’ve always loved listening to how words are arranged and the interplay they have with each other. I am that girl at the poetry slams with my eyes wide shut imaging and intensely feeling the words the poets spit in the mic. I snap so much my fingers are numb. I used to write a lot of poetry when I was young, journal in poetic ways, or read poetry. So, when Cave Canem asked me to work with your organization as an interpreter, everything in me said Yeeeeessssssssss!!!


What do you wish more people knew about ASL and accessibility?

That ASL accessibility is not just about having an interpreter. We are only one piece of a much larger puzzle. If you provide an ASL interpreter but you do not reach out and connect with the Deaf community, invite them to the table, what have you really accomplished? If you invite interpreters to do their work, but do not invite Deaf people to be at the table as the presenters, the poets, the dreamers, the planners, the facilitators, can you say you are truly being accessible? There are some talented, “drippin with everything” Deaf people in this world and without them at your tables, wow how much you miss. How much you miss. So while it is commendable that any space has ASL interpretation, connect with me about how to welcome a Deaf audience and let them know that not only are you here making your spaces accessible to them, but that their collective voice matters so much to you that you want them present in all facets. ASL interpreters also voice interpret when Deaf people have something to say, and they definitely have so many amazing and empowering things to say. See that side of my interpreting skill.


In your experience, how can arts organizations better incorporate ASL and other accessibility needs into our programs and services?

Incorporate more Deaf people. Plain and simple. In whatever spaces you put a hearing person, look to include Deaf and Deaf Blind stakeholders.

Also, Malcolm does an amazing job of connecting with me, getting me the names of the poets and often their list of poems that they will be reading. This is so crucial to the interpreting process in a poetry space. I am a highly skilled interpreter, but without seeing what the poets will say, it can be difficult to quickly pick up the meaning of a particular reading, especially when so much can be symbolic or interpretation. When Malcolm provides me the poets’ names, I can go find them on YouTube or Facebook and listen to their work and get in touch with their vibe, style, pace, mood. I can become the poem so to speak. I can course the rhythm with the reader and get inside the words and meaning and produce not just a series of signs, but I can become the story so that your Deaf audience is impacted in the same way as your hearing audience.

I would also say let people know that you are providing ASL interpretation. Put the interpreter logo on your promotional materials and reach out to Deaf spaces and share your flyers for upcoming interpreted events. Offer Deaf people the mic. Brilliance is everywhere, search for it and invite it to commune with you. Just like there is a vast array of brown colors in our people, Deaf people hear at varying levels so participation in arts programming can look different for everyone. Be open to holding that conversation about what access looks like to each Deaf person. It could look like an interpreter, closed captioning, CART services, voice interpreters. There are so many crayons in the crayon box, and the 120-count crayon box has colors you did not know even existed. Buy the bigger crayon box and see what beauty and art you can create.

Thank you again to Cave Canem for having me in your space and in your face. I truly love the work I do and working with Malcolm and the whole Cave Canem team is an experience that will live with me for a lifetime.


Cynthia Norman is a nationally certified American Sign Language interpreter with more than thirty-five years of experience in all facets of interpreting. She has worked in numerous spaces as a freelance interpreter and served for four years as a center director for a nationally known video relay interpreting call center where she gained valuable skills in leadership. Cynthia is a leader and works diligently to support the hearing and interpreter community that she is a part of through hosting interpreter events, creating an international Black interpreter directory, mentoring emerging ASL interpreters and creating safe spaces for interpreters to talk about the work of providing access to Deaf people. Cynthia is also the mother of three incredible children, a sister, an auntie, a cousin, and friend to many.