September 13, 2022

Deaf Awareness Month: The History of Black ASL & the Fight to Save It

Young Black boy and Black man sit on a couch and use sign language to communicate

 

Not only is September Deaf Awareness Month, the International Day of Sign Language is celebrated on September 23rd. When it comes to American Sign Language (ASL), there are a number of misconceptions. One of the most prevalent is that ASL is just English spoken with your hands. This couldn’t be further from the truth. ASL is a rich, visual language that has its own grammar and sentence structure. It evolved not from the English language but from Old French Sign Language. Like every language, sign language grows and shifts over time to accommodate the different needs of the people using it.

For example, modern American English is an adaptation of British English. American English has an offshoot used by many Black Americans, called African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

This has also been mirrored in sign language. However, Black American Sign Language (BASL) is less an offshoot of ASL and more a closer cousin to the original ASL developed by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet in the early 19th century.

The development of BASL is directly related to segregation. Black and white children were schooled separately well into the 1960s, and in some places even longer. Schools for d/Deaf and blind people were no different.

Traditionally, all d/Deaf students were taught using manualism (ASL and fingerspelling). In the late 1860s, white students began primarily learning through oralism. Oralism encouraged lip reading, speaking, and mouthing words when signing. This was an attempt to discourage the use of sign language because it was considered by some to be a lower form of communication.

Because the education of white children was prioritized, oralism saw little use in Black d/Deaf teaching environments. So, Black signers continued to use and develop ASL, adding new terms, ways of signing, and styles.

One of the most notable differences between BASL and ASL is that BASL has a larger signing space and tends to employ more two-handed signing than ASL. BASL also has signs not found in ASL and that capture phrases and terms used in AAVE. One example is the sign for “stop tripping,” which takes the sign in ASL for trip and moves it to the forehead to change its meaning.

Because ASL is now the standard taught to all signers in the country, the prevalence of BASL may begin to wane within a few generations. To prevent this rich language from being lost entirely, there is now a movement to recognize and preserve it.

Leading the charge is Carolyn McCaskill, who is a professor at Gallaudet University and the co-director of the Black ASL project. The project’s goal is to collect footage of conversationalist BASL and create a description of what makes it a unique variety of ASL. This information will then be used to teach and disseminate information about BASL more widely to new generations.

Note: The writer of this article is white and is not Deaf. To learn more, we suggest the following:

Black ASL Project | Gallaudet University

Sign language that African Americans use is different from that of whites – The Washington Post

Preserving Black American Sign Language in the Deaf community – ABC News (go.com)