|From Pity to Pride|
From Disability Studies Quarterly
Hannah Joyner’s From Pity to Pride, Growing Up Deaf in the Old South, presents a well-documented history of the plight of deaf children growing up in the South in the years before and during the Civil War. Joyner quotes extensively from letters, school records, texts, and other sources written during the antebellum years in an attempt to provide the reader with a feeling for the cultural milieu of paternalism and dependency that permeated Southern life at that time, and to describe the tumult of dilemmas and emotions faced by the parents of deaf children. The opening story tells of the death and funeral of a deaf man, Edward Pye Chamberlayne, who was hit by a train whose warning signal he could not hear. In the telling of this short, poignant story, Joyner establishes the dichotomies of life that existed for deaf people in the South at that time: dichotomies of misfortune and fortune; separation and community; oppression and opportunity; and failure and success.
The four chapters of Part 1 chronicle the difficult decisions that parents faced in choosing medical treatment, education, and eventual life situations for their deaf children. The first chapter, in particular, is shocking in its description of the treatments devised to cure deafness and the overwhelming pressure put on parents from society, religious beliefs, and the medical profession to engage in these dangerous practices. The treatments are shown to be not only pure quackery, but useless and painful for the children.
In Chapters 2 through 4, readers are introduced to the main characters of the book through the stories of several elite Southern families, including the Tillinghasts of North Carolina and the Trists of Virginia. Through quotes from letters and other source materials, Joyner describes the trials and tribulations these families went through on behalf of their deaf children. They spent years consulting doctors, beginning lessons at home, and visiting schools for the deaf in the faraway north. Neither their position in society, nor their wealth could relieve their children’s diagnosis of deafness or change the path set out for them by society. Joyner ably describes both the heartbreak of parents bringing and leaving their children at the state schools, along with the joy and happiness of the children when they find a community of signers with whom they could communicate freely, and with whom they would establish life-long bonds.
Part 2 of the book spotlights the fortune these families experienced in having lived in the era known as the golden age of deaf education and sign language in the United States. The establishment of the first school for the deaf in the country, the American Asylum for the Deaf in Connecticut in 1817, was followed by the creation of state schools across the country, including many in South. Although this is a time of strong support for sign language and education for the deaf, Joyner is careful to include instances of society’s lack of support for deaf people and sign language. Her mention of society’s wish for deaf children to speak and the popularity of the oral method in Germany serve as harbingers of the era of oralism, which would sweep through the country at the turn of the century.
The closing chapters of the book describe the interruption and eventual demise of this remarkable time in deaf education, in part due to the devastation of the Civil War. However, Joyner claims that the war brought the opportunity for success for some deaf and other dependent people of the South, and she surmises that it led to changes in the paternalistic Southern culture. She ends the book by using letters written to David Tilllinghast by his family to tell of his rise from a position of pity in society to one of pride and success. David had spent the war years as a teacher in a school for the deaf in the North, and despite experiencing discrimination as a deaf person, he was not only able to earn his own way in life, but to eventually support his no longer well-to-do family.
Joyner’s book is a well-documented look into a unique time in the history of the deaf community in this country. With patient reading of this text filled with extensively quoted original source material, the social and cultural history of the time does come alive. In fact, the family stories described by this history do not seem all that different from some of the stories that might be told by parents of deaf children in present times.
Hannah Joyner is an independent historian in Takoma Park, MD.
ISBN 1-56368-270-2, 6 x 9 casebound, 224 pages, references, index
To order by mail, print our Order Form or call:
TEL 1-800-621-2736; (773) 568-1550 8 am - 5 pm CST