In spoken language, everyone puts their own flair on how they talk. In the words they use, the gestures, the slang, the dialect, the intonation, the connotation. “Okay” vs. “Okay….” vs. “Ok.”
The way groups of people talk, even if they are speaking the same language as another group, is influenced by culture, history, and the beauty of innovation. But speech that we can hear doesn’t hold the monopoly on this.
In the United States, about 11 million people are deaf, about 3.6 percent of the population. One might assume that American Sign Language, or ASL, is the universal standard, at least in this country. But like anything else, who uses what is informed by history, by culture, and by identity. Of the 11 million people in the U.S. who are deaf, 8 percent are also Black.
Let’s look at spoken language again for a second. A.A.V.E. (African-American Vernacular English), formerly called Ebonics and sometimes called Black English Vernacular, is a dialect of English that features not only distinct sets of vocabulary for certain words, but also its own rules around structure and grammar. Historically, many linguists considered A.A.V.E. a lesser, incorrect form of English, instead of a rich and sophisticated creation that reflects the ingenuity of a people. Black American Sign Language (BASL) has been viewed similarly. But, attitudes are starting to change.
American Sign Language (ASL), first known as Signed English, was largely influenced by what was then-called Signed French. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact year, many experts believe that it was created around 1817 when the American School of the Deaf, the first such educational institution for deaf children in the United States, opened in Hartford, Connecticut. In its early days, Signed English tried to recreate the syntax and sentence structure of the English language, but in signed form.
For a long time, schools like the American School of the Deaf only served white deaf children. In the American South, it was only until after the Civil War that schools for Black deaf children emerged (for example, what was then-called the North Carolina State School for the Colored Blind and Deaf in Raleigh, North Carolina, opened in 1869, it was one of the first of its kind). This meant that Black students were taught Signed English and later, ASL, but within a segregated system.
As time went on, white schools gravitated away from ASL’s French influence by moving toward oralism, a way of signing that emphasizes lip-reading, mouthing of words while signing, and more.
Schools for Black deaf children maintained the French roots of ASL, focusing more on gesture and body language. And in the face of segregation, Black Americans added their own flair to how they signed in number of ways: equally utilizing two hands to sign instead of just one, using bigger facial expressions to communicate feeling and meaning, creating their own signs to represent certain vocabulary, and using a larger signing space (the physical, three-dimensional space around the body) to communicate than their white counterparts. Black American Sign Language became much more than an adaptation to discrimination—it grew into a unique reflection of Black identity. And while segregation in schools continued, ASL and BASL continued to diverge.
Later on, a small number of schools, like the American School of the Deaf, started admitting Black students. In 1952, a Black family in Washington, D.C. sued the Kendall Elementary School for Deaf to challenge its exclusion of Black students, and won. But largely, Black and white deaf students did not learn under the same roof.
Then in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education formally ended segregation in America’s school systems nationwide. Dr. Carolyn McCaskill was one of the first Black students at the Alabama School of the Deaf in 1968. In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. McCaskill said that when she first arrived, there was immediately a disconnect between her and her teachers; she couldn’t understand them. “Even though they were signing, I didn’t understand.”
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The communication gulf between Black and white sign language users has lessened over time, but BASL remains strong. It’s estimated that 50 percent of Black people who use sign language use BASL.
Dr. McCaskill is now an Associate Professor in the Department of Deaf Studies at Galluadet University in Washington, D.C., a leading research institution dedicated to the language and culture of people who are deaf. She is also a co-author of the book The Hidden Treasures of Black ASL: Its History and Structure. She’s not alone in keeping the legacy and continued impact of Black American Sign Language alive. In fact, young Black creators like Nakia Smith have gained a massive following on social media platforms like Tik Tok, sharing their lives while also celebrating and educating their followers about BASL.
Here’s a video Nakia Smith did with Netflix about the history of BASL, how it differs from ASL, and its impact on her family:
Otis Jones is another Black creator who uses his platform to do the same.
The sheer act of existing and expressing yourself online, not just as a Black person, but as a Black deaf person, is a form of celebration, of self-affirmation, and of resistance against an ever-present ableist and racist status quo.
This Black History Month and beyond, let’s continue to learn about the multiple identities within Blackness as we grow in our understanding and respect for each other.
Welcome back to Become All’s celebration of #BlackHistoryMonth! I was really excited to research and write this piece. Over the summer a while ago, when I was still in college, I was working at a toy store in my hometown when two teenage boys came in, raising money for their basketball team. They had a piece of paper with them explaining what they were raising money for, but I wished that I actually knew sign language in order to sign back to them. I then bought a book with basic sign vocabulary and tried to teach myself for few years after that (when I moved to NYC, I was a bit over-confident and tried going to plays in sign language to learn). I am sad to say that I still don’t know sign language (but it’s never too late), but I did come across BASL on Tik Tok earlier this year. I hadn’t known about it before. Me, being a Black woman who tried (and failed) to teach herself sign language but had never thought to learn about BASL? I realized I couldn’t be the only person in that boat.
And even if you’re not interested in learning sign language, knowing about BASL, I think, is still important. With this knowledge, we can help create a less ableist, more inclusive world.
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Thanks for reading!
— Cynthia Betubiza. February 16, 2022.