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American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Identity and Social Images in Nineteenth-Century France

Anne T. Quartararo

Chapter Five
Molding a Deaf Identity: Deaf Leaders, Banquets,
and Community Rituals, 1830 to 1880

Let us suppose that the government established a new town in France and that it allowed all the deaf people of the kingdom to come there.1

In 1834, the deaf teacher Claude-Joseph Richardin proposed his vision for a deaf utopia to both hearing and deaf people. He imagined a town created by the French king, Louis-Philippe, that would be reserved exclusively for deaf people. In this ideal town, no one would speak, “because they all would have the same signs, the same ideas and the same feelings.” Richardin also imagined that in this deaf town, deaf people would be able to undertake almost any profession they would like; they could become judges, lawyers, businessmen, teachers, mayor, or even actors. They could do exactly what Richardin thought hearing people did all the time in real life. In other words, deaf people would be able to pursue their interests as they wished. Richardin was sure that in such an environment, civilization would make great strides because “each deaf person would be happy there.” Given a choice, Richardin wanted to be part of this town where he knew he could be more fulfilled than anywhere else in France.2 But, of course, this town for deaf people was only in his imagination.

Although Richardin was proposing an idealized form of a deaf community, during the late eighteenth century and during the nineteenth century, a real-life deaf community did emerge in France that drew deaf people together socially and culturally, and gave them their own identity as a minority population. The genesis, however, of this deaf community depended on real historical and cultural conditions. Unlike most ethnic and cultural communities, the culture of deaf people cannot be routinely transmitted at home from parent to child because most deaf children come from hearing families. This was why, historically, the boarding school—or residential school—played a key role in the formation and transmission of deaf culture.3 At the residential schools, these children met deaf teachers and other deaf children their own age, and so the cultural transmission began. Whether during the eighteenth century or today, deaf people, regardless of their country of origin, must culturally construct a community over time, using language, rituals, stories, and group activities to help define a cultural identity.4 For that culture to survive, it must be transmitted from generation to generation. Indeed, the storytelling around the iconic figure of Abbé de l’Epée is rich with cultural meaning, for the abbé’s own journey—the creation of his school in Paris during the late eighteenth century—only highlighted the more important journey “from darkness to light” that deaf people experienced after they had access to schooling.5 Today, the story about Abbé de l’Epée has developed a timeless quality because it captures the emotions and hopes of a culture, but even this story had to be constructed at a particular point in time with care and insight from deaf people themselves.

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