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In Light of Black History Month: What is Black ASL?

After Brown v. Board of Education and a period of resistance – especially in the South – against the ruling, Dr. Carolyn McCaskill was admitted as one of the first Black students in the newly integrated class at the Alabama School for the Deaf. Though this educational opportunity was presented to her, she discovered, to her dismay, that she was unable to comprehend her white teachers’ signing.

She had known how to sign as her primary mode of communication. So what was the issue?

What we now refer to as Black American Sign Language is considered a variation of conventional ASL that differs in not just how certain words are signed, but also in the facial expressions and the location (higher, near the forehead, or lower) at which they are signed. In an interview for The Atlantic, Dr. Caskell also explains, “You know how some people may talk loud? I sign loud. So that’s one of the features—a larger signing space.” Integrated in BASL are differences in colloquialisms that developed in Black culture, most notably African American Vernacular English (AAVE). 

But its meaning is deeper than just being a form of sign language more reflective of AAVE; it holds cultural and historical significance. Racial segregation in America left Black and deaf communities deserted by white institutions, preventing them from acquiring the official, professional education that their white counterparts had access to. There were organizations that did advocate for deaf rights and education, but only exclusively to the white deaf community. 

The National Association for Deaf, a leading organization for deaf and hard of hearing advocacy, banned Black individuals from gaining membership all the way up to 1965, especially from the 20s. Their 1950 bylaws specifically stated the following: “[a]ny white deaf citizen of the United States may become a member.” Even Gallaudet University, what remains today as the sole university across the globe that primarily teaches ASL and English, did not admit Black students. It was only until 1954 that they graduated their first, Andrew J. Foster, who left the school and founded 32 deaf schools in Africa after earning his bachelor’s degree. 

However, even after Brown v. Board of Education, schools in at least 15 states remained segregated. Institutions for Black and deaf students came round, but even then they received less resources and were not able to emphasize prioritizing education over labor. 

This barrier between the white and Black deaf communities naturally created disparities in their cultures, especially in the way they communicated, contributing to the gradual piecing together of BASL. And when desegregation brought the two communities together, naturally, conflicts arose. Much like AAVE, a stigma encompassed the way Black and deaf people expressed themselves; it was often condemned as the “less intellectual” form of signing, while in fact studies have shown that it is actually truer to the standard, earlier form of ASL. 

Dr. Joseph Hill, a professor at MIT and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology as well as a sociolinguistic researcher, recalls, “Speaking from my life experience as a black deaf person with a doctorate degree, I have had people doubt that I would excel in school, that I could lead, that I could communicate well, and that I had a knowledge of certain subjects.”

As also is the case with many members of the Black community that use AAVE within their cultures, BASL signers began to code-switch to blend with the more “professional” white society, then switch back when conversing among their families and friends. 

In the midst of the stigmatization of BASL along with the condescending gazes of the white public, Black and deaf individuals continued to disprove the negative stereotypes about their Blackness and deafness. Even with a double disadvantage in society as racial minorities with a disability, many Black and deaf people went on to become the first to graduate with a college degree. And people like Dr. Carolyn McCaskill – who became the second Black woman to earn a PhD at Gallaudet University – and Andrew J. Foster extended their accomplishments by dedicating their careers to deaf education and producing generations of gifted Black and deaf students. Dr. McCaskill also authored the book, The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL.

Ableist and racist ideologies are evidently still ingrained in society and the system, whether some of us are conscious of it or not. BASL may in part be a byproduct of this prejudice and discrimination, but that is all the more a reason for us to preserve and appreciate it as a variation of traditional ASL. Like AAVE, BASL is not slang, nor is it an inferior, degenerate alteration of ASL. Those outside of the Black and deaf community should actively learn to respect it as a sign language with its own characteristics and syntax without associating it to stereotypes, and apply that respect to the community as a whole. This intersectional mindset is indispensable to achieving equity and equality for Black, deaf, and Black and deaf people.

Some of many influential Black and deaf or hard-of-hearing people:

@itscharmay on TikTok and Instagram

@scarlet_may.1 on TikTok and Instagram

@freelove19xx on Instagram

@deafinitelydope on Instagram

Warren “WAWA” Snipe

CJ Jones

Image via Pexels

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