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The Deaf History
John Vickrey Van Cleve, Editor
Genesis of a Community: The American Deaf
Harry G. Lang
Most histories of the American deaf community start with the immediate events leading to the founding of the American School for the Deaf in 1817, but deaf biographer and historian Harry Lang goes farther back into history. In this essay, Lang identifies deaf children, deaf adults, and deaf couples in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and he uses textual evidence to evaluate their lives and their communication methods. He concludes that sign communication was recognized long before Laurent Clerc introduced French Sign Language to the United States, and his evidence suggests that many deaf people lived fully and autonomously in colonial America. Lang also argues, however, that other deaf colonists suffered from oppression because of their deafness.In American Colonies, Allan Taylor wrote that “the traditional story of American uplift excludes too many people.”2 He described a narrow cast that showcased male English colonists in the East and seldom satisfactorily covered the interplay of colonial and native people or the regional explorations and “human places” of other cultures, even those of other Europeans. Though Taylor did not say so, the “human place” of deaf people in the American colonies and post-Revolutionary War period is also relatively unexplored. This paper attempts to begin to fill that gap, to enhance our understanding of both the complex attitudes played out in the lives of deaf people and their methods of self-empowerment during America’s formative years.
Seeds versus Roots
The biography of a community, as with biographies of people, should include tracing its life to the seeds of its existence. In the case of an individual, we usually study parental heritage. In the case of a community, we search for the seeds from which key elements or characteristics have evolved. For the deaf community in America, this heritage includes the seeds of American Sign Language and the creation of a new definition of normality within a group that typically has been segregated and mistreated because of its differences.3 From this new identity grow sociological, economic, and distinctly cultural features.