Carolyn McCaskill, is a deaf, African-American woman who has made it her profession to study deaf culture. A professor at Gallaudet University, the famous institution for deaf and hard of hearing students, McCaskill has been ensconced in such learning communities from a young age. But when she entered a racially integrated school for the first time at 15, she was shocked to learn that she could not understand the signs of her fellow students and teachers — because they were white.
“I was dumbfounded,” McCaskill told The Washington Post about her ordeal. “I was like, ‘What in the world is going on?’” The teenaged McCaskill had to relearn signs for simple words and the correct spaces around her body in which to make them in order to communicate.
“I put my signs aside,” she said.
McCaskill’s puzzlement at the divergent form of sign language American blacks use is not unique. Many in the deaf community have long observed the differences between how blacks and mainstream groups sign, and the fact that such distinctions persist even when blacks and whites closely socialize.
Now, in the first study of its kind, McCaskill and a team of researchers have examined the communication practices of 96 deaf subjects to understand the variations of black signers. In seeking to understand how Black American Sign Language — or Black ASL — has evolved, the study authors conducted personal interviews and analyzed films of the participants.
What they uncovered is “a rich signing system that reflects both a history of segregation and the ongoing influence of spoken black English,” according to Post. The resulting book, “The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL,” and the accompanying DVD, emphasize that Black ASL is not just ASL with a few “slang” signs thrown in. Black ASL contains unique signs for everyday terms, in addition to alternate hand placements — such as at the forehead versus under the chin — that are a radical departure from their American Sign Language (ASL) counterparts.
Blacks also imbue their signing with style. Referred to academically as the bigger “signing space” of Black ASL, a research assistant who contributed to the study described it as a form of expression.
“We include our culture in our signing,” Mercedes Hunter told the Post. “We make our signs bigger, with more body language,” the hearing African-American student at Gallaudet elaborated, which stresses the “unique flavor” of the communicator.
J. Archer Miller, a Baltimore lawyer whose practice focuses on disability cases, represents many deaf clients. He explained that sign language, just like spoken language, will evidence cultural variations and regional differences. These influences make it far from one distinct system. Sign language is more of a living phenomenon subject to evolution based on social factors.
“So it’s hardly surprising,” Miller concluded, “that Americans’ segregated pasts led to the development of different signing traditions — and that contemporary cultural differences continue to influence the signing that black and white Americans use.”
Today, residue from the past still tinges Black ASL. It is both formally dissimilar from ASL, and shrouded in the same judgements made of many black American’s dialect when it is compared to standard English.
Some African-American students at Gallaudet University are self-conscious about using Black ASL. As a minority at the school at only 8 percent of the student body, they fear students and professors may make negative assumptions. “People sometimes think I am mad or have an attitude when I am just chatting with my friends, professors and other people,” a student shared.
In other realms, blacks who “sign white” are sometimes interpreted by other blacks as trying to portray themselves as better than other African-Americans. There is also a perception in both black and white communities that ASL is “cleaner” and “more correct” than Black ASL.
Another parallel between Black ASL and black American English is in the misperception of black slang that has filtered into a signed expression. This can lead to the sign for “bad” meaning “good” for some deaf African-Americans, leading to numerous communication issues among mixed audiences.
Despite these challenges, African-American Gallaudet students, who often break into Black ASL among themselves, are proud of the colorful nature of their culturally-specific signing. “Our signing is louder, more expressive,” one student said. “It’s almost poetic.”
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.