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American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf American Literature: From Carnival to the Canon

Cynthia Peters

Chapter Three
Deaf Carnivals as Centers of Culture

Carnivals, festivals, fairs, and conventions are a cornerstone of present-day Deaf culture. These gatherings are essential, for sign language—and thus its art forms—requires face-to-face interaction. Unless people congregate in a fairly substantial group, little ASL literature can materialize. Because Deaf people are scattered all over the country, carnival makes possible the dissemination of vernacular storytelling, recorded works on videotape, and texts in English. At these festive gatherings the culture manifests itself in force, a condition necessary to generate literature and the potential for later literature. Carnival is therefore a prerequisite of a healthy Deaf literature, whether that entails texts in English, sign language adaptations, vernacular art forms, or new ASL creations.

At carnival Deaf Americans feel free to be themselves and to produce and distribute their literature. For this minority culture, usually dispersed throughout the majority culture, carnival is the site of communal celebration and liberation. Similarly, Mikhail Bakhtin notes, fairs in the Middle Ages “were the second life of the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality, and abundance.” At other times, the people were answerable to feudal lords and masters; only during fairs, harvest festivals, and other festivities was some degree of latitude possible, both in their behavior and in their production of popular art forms. The medieval populace eagerly awaited and participated in these frequent festivals and the literature that they generated; Deaf Americans, who at other times work and live within mainstream society, look forward just as eagerly to festival time when they can engage in their vernacular discourse and literature.

Indeed, “the festival is at the heart of the culture and communication of deaf communities everywhere.” This observation in On the Green, the faculty/staff publication at Gallaudet University, was inspired by the wildly popular and successful Deaf Way: An International Festival and Conference on the Language, Culture, and History of Deaf People, which was held July 9–14, 1989, in Washington, D.C. The granddaddy of all festivals, the Deaf Way was both a convention and festival (a “confest”). This chapter focuses in large part on this particular confest because it shows off so many different aspects of Deaf American carnival.

Gallaudet University, which sponsored Deaf Way, scheduled over 500 presentations and workshops at the Omni Shoreham Hotel and numerous artistic events and performances on campus. For a week, activities stretched from early morning to late evening; there were films, poster talks, exhibits, dramatic productions, workshops, booths, art displays, fashion, roving mimes and clowns, and more. Dancers, storytellers, mimes, and poets entertained in the evening while fairgoers relaxed, socialized, and lined up for Italian, Mexican, and Chinese food, as well as hot dogs and burgers. The 5,000 registrants included students, scholars, psychologists, researchers, linguists, scientists, sociologists, educators, and parents of deaf children from the United States and seventy-five other countries, with interpreters on hand to facilitate communication. A couple of thousand additional, unofficial participants hung around the lobby of the Omni Shoreham and the Gallaudet campus throughout the festival—chatting, reminiscing, and engaging in extensive storytelling.

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