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Black History Month day 13

First, the apology. Several years ago, when Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Brown Girl Dreaming, Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) made a comment that undermined her achievement in a racist way. He apologized (whether adequately from Woodson’s point of view, I don’t know), but I haven’t done so myself, and I need to. I resisted understanding the problem, resisted hearing the voice of my better self, and thus amplified the harm. I won’t go into the details of my response at the time, because I think White People Publicly Repeating Insults They’ve Inflicted Upon Non-White People is part of the problem, but I’ll be happy to go into it privately to anyone who wishes to know more. I just want to apologize: to Ms. Woodson, though she will most likely never know or care anything about my struggles to awake to white supremacy, but more importantly, to friends who patiently tried to get me to see what now seems obvious. Thank you.

I gave my daughter Woodson’s book Harbor Me for Christmas, and of the big pile of books she got that day, it was the first one she read. She recommended it highly and I read it last month. Now I want to read everything Jacqueline Woodson has written. (I didn’t get my daughter Brown Girl Dreaming because I thought it was the one she was most likely to have read already, but she says she hasn’t, and plans to soon.) It’s about a small group of students who become close through sharing their struggles with each other: grief, racism, deportation. Each unsafe in their own way, they seek harbor with one another, as Sweet Honey in the Rock sings:

Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?
Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew,
A heretic, convict, or spy?
Would you harbor a runaway woman or child,
A poet, a prophet, a king? . . . (lyrics by Ysaye M. Barnwell)

The book deals with so many issues, but it soars above the young adult “issues” book genre because the characterizations are so  real and the writing so poetic. Stories unfold the way they do in real life, bit by bit and reluctantly. Some loose ends remain loose. I want to learn so much more about the characters, but we probably never will; we were given a glimpse into a few months in their lives and we will just have to wonder what has become of each of them. And try to make their real-life counterparts’ stories end well, by harboring whomever we encounter who needs it.

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Black History Month, day 12

Argh, I am getting more behind this weekend. But I can easily post twice tonight, after a quiet day of house-tending.

My daughter, who is intrigued by languages in general, has wanted to learn American Sign Language for a long time. I taught her the alphabet bit by bit when she was nine and we were living in Oaxaca, Mexico–it became something we did on bus journeys–but she hasn’t had access to a class, until now. San Francisco Rec and Parks has an after-school class once a week, total immersion: no speaking. She comes back each week jazzed and remembering every sign they learned that afternoon. They have a day camp this summer, so we’re hoping she’ll get to do an entire week of ASL.

So I was very glad to come across some information about Black American Sign Language. There are many sign languages around the world, and on reflection it isn’t at all surprising that black and white deaf U.S. Americans would generate and learn different languages. Schools for the deaf were segregated just like schools for the hearing, and while the first one was founded in 1817, it did not admit black students for its first 125 years. Deaf people have invented their own languages in the absence of formal schooling; it may be (here I am speculating) that the black and white Deaf communities were as isolated from each other as the black and white hearing communities, leading to similar differences in language.

Sadly, as with white modes of English, white ASL is treated as normative and “mainstream”–note how its name isn’t actually white ASL, but simply ASL–while Black ASL is separate and commonly regarded as inferior. Users of American Sign Language struggled to have their language recognized as a language; do BASL users have a similar struggle within the Deaf world?

I don’t know, but I’m glad that my daughter can be aware of different ASL vernaculars from the beginning. When she knows better sign, she can watch videos such as this one by Dr. Joseph Hill, a linguist and native signer of BASL, to learn more about BASL and maybe even learn two varieties of American sign languages at the same time. The Black ASL Project at Gallaudet will also be a great resource. And she and other people interested in language, power, race relations and culture might want to read The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL, by Dr. Hill and three others.

 

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