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American Annals of the Deaf

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Angels and Outcasts: An Anthology of Deaf Characters in Literature

Trent Batson and
Eugene Bergman, Editors


In this book, you will find selected fictional and biographical works of the last century and a half which deal with deafness- that is, they all have deaf characters in them. This collection, then, is an extremely valuable tool for those who are interested in understanding deafness better because it is a unique collection and with it, one can study deafness in a totally new way. From these selections it is possible to know much about the attitudes in the western world toward deaf people, and how these attitudes have changed over the last one hundred and fifty years. The characters range from sweet to profane, from tyrannical to helpless, from good to bad, but they are all human, alive, in the midst of things. Far from being isolated from life, they are in the thick of it. In a sense their stories are stories of how they triumph over their affliction and arrive at self-fulfillment or painful self-understanding. They are fully developed, living characters.

The book is divided into three parts: the nineteenth century, the twentieth century, and deaf authors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of these three sections, in many ways the most interesting (and certainly the most revealing about the deaf experience) is the third one because here we find genuine concern with aspects of the deaf experience. The accounts are written in the first-person mode, which is just as characteristic of them as it has been of black writers, from Frederick Douglass through Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson, to Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

This preoccupation with the self, with one�s own story, can be traced to the exposed existential position which members of a minority occupy in society. The blacks have their tale of oppression and de facto second-class citizenship to tell, and so do the deaf. The deaf writer confines his imagination to the autobiographical mode because to him the struggle for dignity and assertion of the self in the community is an overriding and passionately absorbing concern. This is perhaps best exemplified in Albert Ballin�s autobiography, The Deaf Mute Howls, which incidentally is most recommended to the reader, whether hearing or deaf, because it states so clearly the misunderstandings burdening the deaf in the public eye, and it also reflects the depth of emotion which the deaf feel about their own language-sign language, which is still suppressed in many places the world over.

This is not the first instance of linguistic oppression. As the psychologist Ursula Belugi pointed out, there were at least two previous known instances in human history: the suppression of the teaching of French in Prussian-occupied Alsace after the Franco- Prussian war, and of the teaching of Polish in Prussian-occupied western Poland during the same period. Let us say, however, that the rage which the Alsatians and Poles had then felt can hardly surpass the intensity of the feelings of the deaf about their own sign language, since to them it is also their lifeline toward self-fulfillment, and without it life to them is a living death. The vital importance of this language has long been recognized. Thus nearly a century ago a writer commented:

... the greatest thing needful is to wake up the mind, to make it flow with life-the life of the soul. How is this achievable but with the language of signs? This strange yet wonderful language possesses in fact almost the power of an autocrat over the mind tied and bound by the fetter of deafness; it waves its magic wand and the fetters fall off - it acts the part of nursing mother, and behold the passive intellect is awakened to the power of understanding. (R. Patterson, American Annals of the Deaf, Vol. XXIII, 1878, p. 20.)
The vividness, immediacy and dramatic impact of this language are reflected in the following excerpt from an anonymous article in The Arkansas Optic, circa 1910:
It is the language of the soul; it stirs the heart to the deepest depths of pathos; it convulses the frame with the merriest peals of laughter. I have seen again and again some Demosthenes of the deaf carry his audience in the sweep of one fleeting moment from the agony of burning tears to the delight of enraptured smiles. (Brochure, Boston Society of the Deaf, printed by Herman Schultz. Boston, 1910.)
And Arnold H. Payne in 1937 acclaimed sign language as �far more expressive, facile and beautiful than the English of Shakespeare and the Bible.� (Quoted by Edmund Critchley, in The Language of Gesture. London: E. Arnold, 1939.)
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