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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure

Carolyn McCaskill, Ceil Lucas, Robert Bayley, and Joseph Hill
in collaboration with Roxanne Dummet-King, Pamela Baldwin, and Randall Hogue

Chapter One
Introduction

Without a doubt, the question asked most frequently by laypersons as they turn their attention to sign languages and Deaf communities is whether sign language is universal (i.e., whether only one sign language is known and used by Deaf people all over the world).[1] The answer, which is most often greeted with surprise, is that there is no universal sign language in the sense that the questioner intends it. There have been attempts to devise and implement systems that can be understood by deaf people in situations such as international conferences (Rosenstock 2003), with decidedly mixed results. However, there is no one naturally occurring universal sign language to which all deaf people somehow have access. There are basically as many sign languages as there are viable Deaf communities, as well as sign languages that exist alongside the spoken languages of the majority communities. These sign languages are also differentiated internally according to social criteria in the same way that spoken languages are. That is, varieties of sign languages exist, and the social factors that help define them include both those that play a role in spoken-language variation—region, age, gender, socioeconomic status, race—and others that are unique to language use in Deaf communities. The latter include the language policies implemented in deaf education, the home environment (e.g., Deaf parents in an ASL-signing home vs. hearing parents in a nonsigning home) and the sightedness [or not] of the signer, as in Tactile ASL, the variety used by deaf-blind individuals.

This book and its accompanying DVD describe a project about one such variety of American Sign Language (ASL) used by African American signers and usually known as Black ASL. (The symbol indicates a link to a relevant section of the DVD.) Hairston and Smith have stated that there is “a Black way of signing used by Black deaf people in their own cultural milieu—among families and friends, in social gatherings, and in deaf clubs” (1983, 55). There is abundant anecdotal evidence that such a variety exists. For example, one of the senior members of the research team, Carolyn McCaskill, talks about “putting my signs aside” when she arrived at the newly integrated Alabama School for the Deaf (ASD) in Talladega in 1968. She had previously attended the segregated Alabama School for Negro Deaf (ASND) and was one of about ten Black deaf students (five females and five males) who transferred to the school. She and the other students found classroom communication very challenging. They were very surprised to find how different the signing was at their new school and how difficult it was at first to understand the White students and the teachers. The teacher asked them, “What are you signing?” and the students asked her the same question. She and the other Black deaf students felt as if they were signing two different languages and in a foreign land. Ironically, the school for Black children and the school for the White children were located within a few miles of each other. As another example, a young hearing man from a Black deaf family (a Coda, ‘child of deaf adults’) who teaches ASL at a community college remarks, “Oh yeah—the way I sign in class and the way I sign at home are totally different.” Black Deaf participants and interpreters attending meetings of the National Black Deaf Advocates (NBDA) have been known to observe, “I see something different—different from other signing.” Thus, although we have had only fairly small-scale studies (see, e.g., Aramburo 1989; Guggenheim 1993; Lewis 1998), we do have numerous anecdotal accounts that a distinct dialect exists.

Since William C. Stokoe’s (1960) pioneering work, linguists have recognized that natural sign languages are autonomous linguistic systems, structurally independent of the spoken languages with which they may coexist in a given community. This recognition has been followed by extensive research into different aspects of ASL structure and accompanied by the recognition that, as natural sign languages are full-fledged autonomous linguistic systems shared by communities of users, the sociolinguistics of sign languages can be described in ways that parallel the description of the sociolinguistics of spoken languages. On Stokoe’s pioneering work, Garretson (1980) remarked that, “To know, once and for all, that our ‘primitive’ and ‘ideographic gestures’ are really a formal language on a par with all other languages of the world is a step towards pride and liberation” (vi). A formal language by definition includes sociolinguistic variation and distinct subsystems or varieties. As of this writing, we have clear empirical evidence of


1. The use of uppercase “Deaf ” here indicates cultural deafness, as opposed to the strictly audiological condition indicated by lowercase “deaf.” Both uses are conventional in the literature on deafness.
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