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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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The coming together of this widely dispersed community provides an arena for public discourse and literature. Once Deaf Americans get together with friends—on whatever occasion—they gather around the kitchen table, along the bar counter, or in the motel room and talk long into the night. A good deal of time is spent storytelling: relating adventures and misadventures of the trip so far and reporting goings-on in other regions of the country. They may also update one another on cultural developments and pass on—transmit—popular stories and other traditional ASL forms. A people who rely on a visual vernacular must meet face-to-face to preserve and disseminate their culture and literature. Even today’s video technology cannot approximate the immediacy of oral storytelling, a point discussed at greater length in chapter 9.

The culture of Deaf Americans has no geographical center, but at the festivities where they gather they find a place of their own. Though it is temporary and transient, it is still worth traveling a long distance to get to and luxuriate in for a short time—to be among “family” and catch up on news and gossip. At the Deaf Way, Sam Sonnenstrahl, one of the attendees, exulted in being part of a “big, international family,” a family exemplified by a table of fairgoers at the International Tent one evening. As one of the young men seated at the table stated, “East and West come together. I am from the Middle East, my friend here is from the West, and this young woman here is from the East.” This place becomes “home”—where one finds oneself and others like oneself; where one’s identity is found or is reinforced and strengthened; where one is comfortable with people who communicate the same way and in the process engage in much informal and formal storytelling. Therefore, traveling to festivals and other large gatherings is part of a quest for “home” and identity.

A Place of One’s Own

Because most Deaf Americans are born into mainstream (hearing) society but have little or no hearing, many do not fully identify with members of their family or feel fully at home in mainstream society, with its spoken and written English discourse. Lacking an ascribed identity—the identity stamped on one as a result of being a member of a particular family and community—many deaf people feel the need to “achieve” an identity. They must go out into the world and join together with other deaf people to learn what it means to be a Deaf American. A central state residential school draws young deaf children from what may be a very large area; once enrolled, a large percentage of the children (though less now than in the past) remain there for a good portion of the year, because the trip home is too long to make every day or on weekends. At the school, however, the children find people with whom they can communicate and share stories in ASL; they experience the feeling of being at home and part of one big family.

Don Bangs’s Institution Blues (1993) reveals how thoroughly the school for the deaf becomes a “home” and how all the children and the houseparents become one big family. More often than not, the children arrive unable to communicate at all and thus not knowing why they have been left at the school. The other children, who probably have had the same experience, must help the new arrivals learn sign language and develop as a “civilized” human being. In Bangs’s play, as the children are left to their own devices one evening, they play games together and create group narratives; in one, they portray all the animate and inanimate elements of the Frankenstein tale. As the scene closes, the children one after another join in a chorus, declaring “I have one hundred brothers and sisters! I have one hundred brothers and sisters!” They have come to the school from far and near, and there they have acquired a family and an identity.

Indeed, American literature in general has much to say about achieving identity. The cultural historian Werner Sollars argues that American society places greater emphasis on achieved identity than ascribed identity, for the United States has traditionally valued individualism as embodied in the independent, self-made man or woman going out and making his or her own way. Many members of minority groups, in particular, find that they must achieve an identity: they must discover what it is to be a product of both minority and mainstream society, often discovering in the process that the price of success and acceptance is abandoning their own culture. Such a search for identity—or, more accurately, the evolving of a double identity—is the focus of much minority discourse and literature in the United States.

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