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Black American Sign Language

In a sociolinguistics class back in graduate school, Professor Roger Cayer told us about an article by James Woodward titled “Black Southern Signing.” I was fascinated that such a linguistic form existed, but I was more interested in the idea that those language practitioners were considered inferior and were discriminated against in schools. This boosted an argument about African American English (AAE) that I supported by then: It’s not verbal forms or sounds that make you contemptuous of people. You couldn’t even “hear” these people. It’s your contempt of people that makes you contemptuous of their verbal forms and sounds. I sometimes used the fact of Black Southern Signing and its reception in schools as my debate clincher.

The Hidden Treasure

I hadn’t thought much about those days until a colleague mentioned to me a book that came out this year, The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure, by Carolyn McCaskill, Ceil Lucas, Robert Bayley, Joseph Hill, in collaboration with Roxanne Dummett, Pamela Baldwin, and Randall Hogue. The authors published a hardcover version in 2011 that I missed. This paperback version contains added resources, including the link to a video. The book and video are organized around queries concerning the sociohistorical origins of Black ASL, the features of the language variety, whether those features are distinct, and what those distinct features might be. Data were collected in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that Black ASL has its roots in segregation. Particular language use derives from a particular social matrix. In seventeen southern and border states along with Washington D.C, the average time between the establishment of the schools for Black deaf students and desegregation was almost 73 years. Moreover, the authors reveal, many schools remained segregated well after the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Schools in Louisiana were segregated until 1978.

It has been impossible not to have language divergence, and the authors carefully detail it. For example, some signs can be produced using either one or two hands. Black signers overwhelmingly choose two-handed options, which is not the case with White counterparts. Another variable is signing space. Black people tend to use larger signing space. These examples point to quantitative differences. Some features of Black ASL are not unique. They merely exist in different concentrations in the signing of Blacks and Whites. However, the research also revealed that Black signers incorporate AAE lexical items and expressions into their signing. This is a clear Black distinction. Charmay breaks it down in the video above.

As suggested, all language varieties shift over time and in response to social conditions. Differences between older and younger Black signers exist; increasing similarities between younger black signers and younger White signers exist. In addition, as we have seen in studying AAE, a sense of inferiority often occurs among Black ASL signers. Their thinking is that White ASL is somehow superior. But the research is clear that White signing is not “more advanced” or “better.” And, bottom line, the differences between White ASL and Black ASL should not result in the privileging of White students and the disadvantaging of Black students.

Lingering Question

This all reminds me of an incident long ago, even before grad school. I was in a car with a friend of mine, on the passenger side. The traffic slowed near this bus stop. We were near the curb, and I spotted this beautiful woman, a young Margaret Avery type dressed business style, waiting for the bus with a few others. I rolled down the window to tell her how nice she looked. We were close enough that I didn’t have to be loud. I wasn’t one of those loud dudes. This looked like my typical, low-key, compliment-thank you-keep it moving scenario about to unfold. Well, I did tell her, and she emphatically gave me the middle finger. The car behind us pushed us along, but I told my friend to circle the block in hope that we could roll up on her again. I had lost my cool. So we circled the block. You really rectangle the block, but that’s another language story. The bus hadn’t arrived yet. When she saw us pull up, she backed away, made a gesture toward her ear, and frantically started signing---at least it came off as frantic to me. It was, like, “MF I done told you . . .” Something was way past my control. I rolled the window up and never did figure all of that out. I just left it alone, even with my friend cracking up at the steering wheel. My game had taken a hit. Now McCaskill and crew have me wondering whether I was rebuked in Black ASL or a standardized variety.


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