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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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