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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf American Literature: From Carnival to the Canon

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After and during the festival, countless informal social gatherings took place as Deaf Americans and international visitors congregated and participated in many rhetorical pleasures such as storytelling.

Festivals: Mobile Centers of Community

Gatherings like the Deaf Way are not simply social events or work-related conferences but have cultural and psychological significance. Deaf gatherings provide a focal point and a cultural center for a widely dispersed people, whose orientation (visual) and mode of communication (sign language) differ from those of mainstream society. Here Deaf Americans find community, ease of communication, and their own rhetorical traditions. Just as the viability of medieval culture was linked to the medieval fair, so too is today’s festival crucial to the survival of Deaf culture.

In the Middle Ages, fairs provided occasions for community activities of both town and church, for commerce and trade, and for education. At a time when schooling was not widespread and travel of any distance was rare, the fair was itself an educational experience for the lower classes. It also offered popular art forms, public or official rhetoric, and entertainment. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White describe it as “a kind of educative spectacle: a relay for the diffusion of cosmopolitan values of the centre throughout the provinces.” Similarly, Deaf festivals provide cultural (art) forms, political debate and action, educational workshops, new technology, interpreted tours, public services, and so forth. For instance, the biennial National Association of the Deaf (NAD) convention serves an official function for the association. Yet the convention also includes the Miss Deaf America pageant, workshops, lectures, exhibits, and tours. In addition, such festivals play as important a role in commerce as did their medieval predecessors. Many Deaf people who own businesses that are not located in large metropolitan centers rely on these gatherings for exhibiting and advertising their products and services.

Thus, Deaf Americans come together from all over the country for periodic conventions, festivals (regional, national, and international), timberfests, school reunions, and the like. Like the Deaf Way, the flourishing Deaf Expo in California and the popular metropolitan festivals in Washington, D.C., are all eagerly awaited. The many academic conferences are also much anticipated and well-attended. Alumni reunions of schools for the deaf attract former students from near and far. The regional and national bowling tournaments dotting the country draw great numbers of enthusiastic participants, and it is not unusual for Deaf people to plan overseas excursions around meetings of the World Federation of the Deaf and the World Games for the Deaf, which convene in a different country every four years.

At these gatherings, the community reaffirms and celebrates its culture and vernacular. Like the medieval fair, all these conventions, tournaments, and festivals serve to draw a widely dispersed community together. Deaf people, like the peoples of the Middle Ages, greatly value the immediacy of personal experience and the more intensive social interaction that is characteristic of traditional oral cultures. Deaf Americans prefer to get together at clubs, at school reunions, in bowling leagues, and at the kitchen table rather than chatting over the phone or e-mailing. In fact, they often spend as much time socializing at such gatherings as they spend attending the official functions.

Indeed, Deaf Americans from all walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, and races travel considerable distances to attend conventions and festivals, much as the medieval populace traveled from outlying farms and manors to converge on the marketplace and fairs. Before telephones and television became accessible, Deaf Americans had to move to communicate, socialize, and seek entertainment. Even today, they go to great lengths to see other Deaf Americans and converse in their native language. When they travel and sightsee, they stop frequently along the way, having contacted in advance old friends and school chums and planned their itinerary accordingly.

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