Race Matters In Deaf Communication

Sep 19, 2012

The nation's history of segregation is echoed today in the distinct structure and sound of African American English, or Ebonics--a variant form of spoken English that has been well documented by linguists. But who knew that in the deaf community a form of American Sign Language, known as Black ASL, evolved among African Americans?

Carolyn McCaskill, a professor at Gallaudet University, recalls her own surprise in 1968 when she transferred from the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind to an integrated school a few miles away and found the white teacher's signing incomprehensible. Five years ago, she and three other researchers began to document and describe the distinct features of black sign language. Their work resulted in the publication last year of a book and DVD titled "The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL."

Sellers, McCaskill and her co-author Joseph Hill discussed race distinctions in deaf communication on Wednesday, September 19th.

Hi, I'm Frances Stead Sellers, the reporter at The Washington Post who was lucky enough to learn and then write about this fascinating Black ASL project. I  have some training in linguistics, having done a Masters at the University of Pennsylvania, but I'll leave all technical questions to Carolyn and Joe.

Hi and good morning. My name is Dr. Carolyn McCaskill.  I am a professor at Gallaudet University in the Department of ASL & Deaf Studies. Also one of the co-authors of "The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure."

Hello, my name is Joseph Hill. I am an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I am a coordinator of the ASL Teacher Licensure concentration of the Professions in Deafness program. I am one of the co-authors of "The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure." So I am here to answer any questions you may have about Black ASL or Black Deaf community.

Could Black ASL keep deaf African American students from competing in university settings?

This is a very good question. I think today Black Deaf students are able to use two different forms of ASL, one that belongs to their culture and one that is used by the mainstream Deaf community. They can go back and forth between the forms with very little problem. But there are some barriers they have to face that keeps them from competing in university settings, for example, socioeconomic status, lack of educational and financial resources, accessibility, and low expectations.

Are you aware of similar patterns in other countries?

All languages in the world have variations. We have American English dialects in different parts of the country. In UK, there are British English dialects. In Italy, there are Italian dialects. As Rickford (1999) said in his book, "African American Vernacular English: "

"All languages, if they have enough speakers, have dialects - regional or social varieties that develop when people are separated by geographic or social barriers."

This applies to sign languages too. We do have variations in ASL beside Black ASL. In Italy, there are dialects of Italian Sign Language. There are dialects of British Sign Language. The thing is that if there are different communities with the sizable number of signers, you will see the variations.

Joe's description of language variation  is a very good one.  When I began reporting this story and talking to people about it, I think many people were well aware that  there are variations in spoken languages, but they had never thought about sign language. Many people imagine sign language to be a universal system that anyone in the world can understand. Or they think that sign languages are direct visual translations of spoken languages. Neither of those points are true, as I learnt when I spent time at Gallaudet. Instead ASL (and other sign languages like the British Sign Language, or BSL) have variations (or dialects, if you like).

As a black hearing person who doesn't "speak black," I was really intrigued by this article. There are white people who grow up in the "hood" who talk "black," just as there are black people who talk very "white," The way you speak or sign isn't dictated by your skin color but by your culture, which can certainly be influenced by your skin color. Attributing the way somebody speaks or signs to the amount of melanin in their skin a) is simply inaccurate, b)isn't celebrating culture as the book isn't about culture but skin color, and c)I think it keeps perpetuating the harmful underlying belief that there is something inherent to black/minority people that inhibits their full integration. (And by integration I don't mean "everybody signing like white people" but the idea that the most important quality in conducting your life is that you're a human, a person, rather than a "black person" or a "white person.") I'd really like to hear your reaction to these ideas.

Yes, you are right that a language difference is not dictated by one's skin color. A person can speak any language or dialect to which he or she has acquired in whatever language community the person lives in. However, the langauge difference can be formed by a social barrier related to race, socioeconomic status, age, gender, or religion.  As I have said before, language varieties are formed by geographic and social barriers and we have a real-life example: Jim Crow's law in the south. With this law, it forced the communities to segregate and it reduced the communities' contact with each other. With the lack of contact, it reduced the flow of language between them. So within the communities, they somehow developed their own variety that was particular to their community. So the racial barrier defined the language varieties. It is the same with Black ASL. In the past, white and black deaf children were isolated from each other and they recieved different language input in their own communities. So that's how Black ASL was formed.

Hi, this is Frances  adding to Joe's response. I'm talking to his co-researcher, Ceil Lucas, who points out that the policy of segregating white and black deaf children was far from accidental, so there were no schools for black deaf children until after the Civil War. And the segregation continued until long after Brown v Board of Education. There were separate schools or departments in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

Does sign language evolve and how quickly? How do new phrases become popular?

In my professional opinion, I think sign language evolves in the same rate as spoken language. There are always new signs coming up and it is also true that some signs have gone away. It is the same with spoken languages. It is just how languages work. As for the new phrases, it depends on  the communities. With the changes in technology, they have spawned new words in different languages and it is the same with ASL. With the mass media (including the social media), it makes a way for new signs and phrases to spread through the community.

Are there specific non-manuals of Black ASL? Do some of the mouth patterns follow African-American English? Is there much influence from the spoken language used in the community?

I'm sure Carolyn and Joseph can tell you more about this, but there is certainly influence from contemporary African American English, or what linguists call AAE. Ceil Lucas, another of the co-authors of the book mentioned to me the sign for "bad" which  can mean "really good" in Black ASL. It's an example of usage migrating to sign language from spoken black English. Similarly, she told me that the sign "word" can mean "that's the truth" in Black ASL but wouldn't be used that way by most white signers. That said, usage varies from individual to individual, of course.

Do you think that with the mainstreaming of more and more deaf students and the closing of residential schools that some of the regional and ethnic dialects in ASL might fade?

Yes, the educational mainstreaming of deaf students and the closing of residential schools do have an effect on ASL and its dialects. The residential schools are the places where sign language is used by everyone on campus. These are where deaf and hard of hearing children acquire sign language during the critical time of their language development and these are where they develop their social identities as well. But with the closing of residential schools, it is one way to remove the language input for the children. In the mainstreaming, there are different communication methods and sometimes ASL is not one of them. Also, in some cases, deaf children are the only ones in their schools and they don't have a way to socialize with ASL signers to acquire and maintain their ASL skills. With Black ASL, it has happened. With the residential schools for black deaf children closed or integrated in 1960s and 1970s,  the majority of black deaf children have chosen to adopt the mainstream ASL.  So it is a very large change.

When interpreting for a Black ASL user is it most appropriate to use grammatical constructions from African-American English? What if the interpreter isn't African-American?

When I talked to interpreters about this, they told me that their job is a constant decision-making process, as they try to convey the full meaning as  appropriately as possible for the audience. One issue that intrigued me is when politicians or other public figures "code-switch" (change from American English to African American English, for example) in the middle of a speech. The interpreter has to decide  how to convey that change, which is often done for rhetorial effect. There are specialists in culturally sensitive interpreting like Mary Henry Lightfoot, whom I quoted in the article. You might want to look at some of her work online.

Hi Carolyn and Joseph, can you tell us more about how these differences play out on campus -- in terms of students socializing with one another? Does this create a noticeable divide?

Hi, I'm talking to Ceil Lucas who says there is a divide, and it's just the divide you might find at a hearing university. These days, says, that divide is not as important to them as it was to earlier generations. She also says there is anecdotal evidence that younger white signers are using some black signs in their interactions.

What would you say are the main differences between the sign styles of black and white deaf students? Would you say it is mainly vocabulary differences or would it extend even further to grammar such as marker usage or topicalization?

This sounds like a question from somebody who knows more about linguistics than I do! So here's what Ceil says:  The differences are laid out in the book and the DVD and they are nicely summarized on the front of yesterday's Health and Science section. They range from vocab, to signing space, use of repetition, more use of two handed signs by black signers and more use of higher signs by signers. That, she tells me, is a combination of phonology and syntax, along with vocabularly and the influence of black English. Hope that helps!

Yes there is definitely a divide on Gallaudet University campus similar to other hearing university. There are cliques such as hard of hearing students, international students, hearing undergraduate students, etc

Where are the strongest traditions of Black ASL? Are they centered around some of the schools that used to serve only deaf African-Americans?

Ceil Lucas tells me there are certainly communities of Black ASL users living around the old segregated schools in all 17 states that had those schools. But, she says, there are large and vigorous black deaf communities in big cities--New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago etc. And there is the organization National Black Deaf Advocates (NBDA) that has a national meeting every two years and local meetings in the alternate years and many people are very active in those organizations.

Since the closing of Black Deaf shools and Black Deaf clubs, the National Black Deaf Advocate organization has become central to the culture. There are approximately 32 NBDA chapters.

What kinds of responses have you gotten/seen from Black signers (deaf or hearing)? Do any of them feel a new pressure to be able to use "Black ASL" if they haven't been? Or a concern their signs aren't "Black enough?"

The response has been very positive from what I've heard. You can follow the Tweets and see how fascinating people found this article, whether they were black or white. Ceil tells that there are many many books written about the white deaf experience in the United States. But so far there is only one book published in 1983 about the black deaf experience with very little information about language use. So she says this work is being welcomed very warmly. She says there is also a reaction of shock to the history and most people had not idea about the extent of the segregation. That surprised me, too.

I can imagine that when signing in, say, the Michigan region, one would sign "Are you coming with?" instead of "Are you coming with us?" as that's a regionalism. Similarly, in New England, a signer would sign the word "wicked" quite often. However, in the regions where the word "ask" sounds more like "ax", I'm assuming the speaker knows the word is spelled "ask" and not "ax". As such, wouldn't the signer sign "ask" or "ax"?

This is a great question, because it gets to the heart of what sign language actually is. It doesn't involve spelling out English words. Nor is it even a visual representation of the English language. It is a linguistic system of its own. Yes, Black ASL is influenced by contemporary black spoken English, but not in terms of spelling. Signs represent whole nouns or phrases, so a signer is never wrestling with spelling or accent differences in spoken language. There is an independent sign for "ask" and it is different in different regions of the country, but the differences do not reflect spoken language.

Yes there is a reaction of shock because so much of our history has not been told or written about.  I  have been approached by Black Deaf older and younger generations and to thank us (Black ASL Project) Team for doing our work. It validates for them the experience they had at the school and gave them a sense of pride for their language and culture

If ASL is standardized, who determines the standard? I'm thinking this will come about by a committee of linguists (and/or other "authorities" of ASL) of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, etc. With this in mind, who determines which way is the "right" way to standardize ASL?

Wonderful question! I'm asking Ceil who tells me there is no committee dictating what "standard ASL is." To the extent there is standardization, it's happened largely throught teaching materials and sign language classes.  There are also perceptions that places like Gallaudet represent some kind of a language standard. What's more, with the Internet, YouTube and video relay service interpreting, everyone, deaf and hearing, is being exposed to regional variation in a completely new way. And they have opportunities to learn regional differences. Deaf people from all over the country and all over the world can now see each other.

I have truly enjoyed this chat.  Thank you so much

Thanks for joining the chat. Feel free to send any other questions you may have to sellersf@washpost.com--and if I can't answer them I'll try to find somebody who can. Frances

In This Chat
Frances Stead Sellers
Frances Stead Sellers is the editor of the Style section of The Washington Post. She joined Style in August, 2011, after running The Post's Health, Science and Environmental coverage. Frances originally came to the United States as a British Thouron Scholar to study linguistics the University of Pennsylvania.
Carolyn McCaskill
Carolyn McCaskill has a B.A. degree in psychology with a minor in social work, a M.A. degree in counseling of the deaf and a Ph.D. in special education administration from Gallaudet University. She is currently a professor in the ASL & Deaf Studies Department at her alma mater. McCaskill is also the co-director of the Black ASL Project.
Joseph Hill
Joseph Hill is co-author of ?The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure.? Hill currently sits on North Carolina Governor?s Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. He is a graduate of the doctoral program in linguistics at Gallaudet University and an assistant professor in the Department of Specialized Education Services at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.
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