How much can you learn from our culture through sign language?
Sign Language is not the same in all countries. It varies, like any other language. It develops its accents and nuances. It adjusts itself to social groups, towns, and communities. For example, American Sign Language (ASL) is widely spoken across the US. But there is also a little something called Black American Sign Language (BASL) which is not the same and its very existence brings to the surface a story of pride and struggle.
JC Smith, an undergraduate student at Gallaudet University explains it this way: “ASL is more professional, and Black ASL is like that with some soul. It’s like some good seasoning. We’re vibing while we’re signing. There’s some hip-hop flair.”
Carolyn McCaskill is a professor in the Department of Deaf Studies, founding director of the center at Gallaudet, and co-author of the book “The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure”. The first socio-historical and linguistic study of Black ASL. She furthermore explains that they consider themselves a linguistic minority. And as such, some rights should be met.
But first, let’s a recap.
History of BASL
Being a language minority is never easy. ASL has its fair share of struggles as it is. But when aside from a hearing impairment,there is racism and segregation, it’s a whole new level of trouble. The first school for the Deaf in the United States, the American School for the Deaf (ASD), was founded in 1817. It, of course, did not admit any black students. Not until 1952. In 1856, people like Platt Skinner in New York founded schools for black students. Something had to be done.
In 1954, thanks to Brown v. Board of Education, racial segregation in public schools was declared unconstitutional. But it is common knowledge that this cultural change took a while. Even if by law, people were now protected. In practice, the reality was harsh and integration was slow to come. From the 1870s until the 1970s, at least 15 states, mostly in the south, maintained separate schools for Black and White deaf students. Until 24 years after the decision, there were still schools segregated. In 2011, former Black Deaf students of the Kentucky School for the Deaf received long-overdue diplomas once denied to them 60 years earlier.
Now, why do accents and dialects appear? They come as a result of distance. Geographical distance, social distance, all kinds of them. Because certain people get together, they develop a common language and speech. This is why we can talk about how “people in the south” speak, or in certain states, or certain cliques.
With so many years of racial isolation, it’s only natural that Black American Sign Language (Black ASL) appeared.
What are the differences?
Specific features, such as handedness, location of the sign, or the size of the signing space. Black signers are more likely to produce signs outside of the typical signing space and to use two-handed signs. There is even a different use of repetitions and the incorporation of spoken African American English into Black ASL.
Same as with African American English, as a non-standard dialect, BASL is frequently stigmatized by signers. The consequence is a phenomenon called “code-switching”. This means that people change how they speak to fit in. The environment is hostile to their language, so people adapt.
What is very amazing is that according to scholars, Black ASL is more aligned with early American Sign Language than American Sign Language. It keeps the influence brought by the French.
11 million Americans consider themselves deaf or hard of hearing, according to the Census Bureau. Black people make up nearly 8 percent of that population. Carolyn McCaskill, whom we mentioned at the beginning, estimates that about 50 percent of deaf Black people use Black ASL.
In her book, which is the culmination of a six-year research study, she draws interviews with about 100 subjects across six Southern states. Her goal, together with those who participated in this ambitious project, is to spread awareness and the history of BASL all over the globe.
And since language is a very much alive subject, it’s not just scholars who are digging deeper into this. Vlogs and online discussion panels have created a tight-knit community. Influencers made their way through Tik Tok. Young people like Nakia Smith are going viral teaching about Black ASL.
There is also Deaf Performer, Activist, and Actor Aaron Loggins, Deaf DJ and Poet Leyland Lyken, ASL Interpreter and Deaf Activist Matt Maxey and so many more shedding light on this aspect of Black culture that has not seen itself represented in mainstream media enough.