“I have to make sure my hands are not ashen before I sign,” the deaf Nakia Smith told her nearly 400,000 followers.
In one of the dozen of popular videos she posted on TikTok last year, Ms. Smith likened her habit of adding a quick swab of lotion to her hands before starting to sign the sip of water a hearing person takes before starting to speak.
Since Ms. Smith created her account last April, the little ritual has attracted millions of glances, drawing attention to a corner of the internet marked by the history and practice of a language some scholars say too often overlooked: Black American Sign Language, or BASL.
Variations and dialects of spoken English, including what linguists call African American English, have been the subject of intense study for years. However, research on Black ASL, which is vastly different from American sign language, goes back decades and obscures much of the history of sign language.
According to the Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey, approximately 11 million Americans consider themselves deaf or hard of hearing, and nearly 8 percent of that population are black. Carolyn McCaskill, founding director of the Center for Black Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University, a private Washington university for the deaf and hard of hearing, estimates that about 50 percent of deaf blacks use Black ASL.
Now young black signatories are celebrating the language on social media, exposing millions to the history of a dialect that is preserved by its users and enriched by their lived experiences.
Nuances of Black ASL
Black ASL users are often faced with the assumption that their language is a lesser version of contemporary ASL, but several scholars say that Black ASL is actually more focused on early American sign language, which was influenced by French sign language.
Ms. Smith, whose character name is Charmay, has a simple explanation of how the two languages differ: “The difference between BASL and ASL is that BASL has been flavored,” she said.
When you compare ASL to Black ASL, there are notable differences: Black ASL users tend to use more two-handed characters and often place characters around the forehead area rather than lower down the body.
“Here you have a black dialect that was developed in the most oppressive of conditions and was in many ways more standard than its white counterpart,” said Robert Bayley, professor of linguistics at the University of California at Davis.
When white Deaf schools turned to oralism in the 1870s and 1880s – which placed less emphasis on signing and more on teaching deaf students to speak and lip-read – black signatories retained the standards of American sign language and some teachers for white sign language better at In the end he moved to black schools for the deaf.
According to Ceil Lucas, a sociolinguist and professor emeritus at Gallaudet University, many schools for white deaf people have been indifferent to the education of black deaf students.
“The attitude was, ‘We don’t care about black children,'” she said. ‘We don’t care if they get oralism or not – they can do what they want.’ And so these children benefited from having white deaf teachers in the classroom. “
Some black signers also tend to use a larger signature area and to be more emotic when signing compared to white signers. Over time, Black ASL has also incorporated African American English terms. For example, the black ASL mark for “tight,” which means “cool,” and is from Texas, is not the same as the conceptual mark for “tight,” which means tight or body-hugging. There are also some indications of everyday words such as “bathroom”, “towel” and “chicken” which are completely different in ASL and Black ASL depending on where a signatory lives or grew up.
In the same way that black listeners adjust the way they speak to meet the needs of their white counterparts, black ASL users employ a similar mechanism depending on their environment, according to Joseph Hill, associate professor at National Technical Institute for the Rochester Institute of Technology The Dove.
As one of the first black students to attend the Alabama School for the Deaf, Dr. McCaskill that the code switching allowed her to blend in with white students while maintaining her black ASL style.
“We kept our natural way of communicating to the point where many of us unconsciously switched codes,” she said.
Ms. Smith said she noticed that others in middle school communicated differently than she did when she attended a school that consisted mostly of hearing students.
“I began to sign like other deaf students who don’t have a deaf family,” said Ms. Smith, whose family had deaf relatives for four of the last five generations. “I made friends with them and signed how they signed so they could be comfortable.”
Ms. Smith notes how her relatives are signing – her grandfather Jake Smith Jr. and great-grandparents Jake Smith Sr. and Mattie Smith were all mentioned on their TikTok – and notes that they are still using characters they learned as adults.
Generational gaps often arise when Ms. Smith’s older relatives try to communicate with their friends or when they need help communicating during medical appointments. This is an example of how Black ASL has developed over generations.
Similar to any black experience, the experiences of black deaf people with black ASL vary from person to person and rarely fit exactly into what others expect.
A language born of oppression
Much like much of Black American history, Black ASL emerged from the immoral germs of racial segregation.
One of the most comprehensive insights into the language comes from the Black ASL Project, a six-year research study that began in 2007 and is based on interviews with approximately 100 subjects from six southern states. The results were published in “The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL. ”(Dr. McCaskill, Dr. Hill, Dr. Bayley, and Dr. Lucas are authors.)
The project found that segregation in the south played a huge role in the development of Black ASL.
According to the team’s study, schools for deaf children emerged in the United States after the Civil War. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia had facilities or departments for black deaf blacks. The first U.S. school for the deaf, later known as the American School for the Deaf, opened in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817 and initially did not accept black students.
The separation meant that the schools for the black deaf were immensely different from their white counterparts. White schools typically focused on an oral method of learning and offered an academic curriculum, while black schools emphasized signing and offered professional training.
“There were no expectations that black deaf children would be prepared for college or even continue their education,” said Dr. McCaskill, who lost her hearing around the age of 5 and attended the Alabama School for Deaf and Blind Negroes in Talladega, Ala.
In 1952, Louise B. Miller, along with other Washington parents, sued the District of Columbia Board of Education for not admitting black deaf children to Kendall School, the city’s only deaf school.
The court ruled in Ms. Miller’s favor under the precedent that states could not provide educational facilities in their state for one race and not the other. Black students were allowed to attend the Kendall School in 1952. In 1954, following the decision of the Brown Supreme Court v Board of Education, the classes were fully integrated.
Desegregation was not immediate in the south, however, as most schools resisted racial integration until they were threatened with the loss of federal funds. In Louisiana, the state’s white and black deaf schools delayed integration until 1978.
In 1968, Dr. McCaskill part of the first integrated class at the Alabama School for the Deaf. As a teenager in a newly integrated class, she had a daunting realization: she couldn’t understand her white teachers.
“Although you signed, I did not understand,” she said. “And I didn’t understand why I didn’t understand.”
A new generation takes ownership
Isidore Niyongabo, president of National Black Deaf Advocates, said he had seen online interaction increase within his organization and across the Black Deaf community as the pandemic forced many to flock to virtual social spaces.
“We are starting to see a boom with the recognition of the deaf culture in America,” said Niyongabo, adding that he expects it “to continue to spread around the world.”
Vlogs and online discussion boards – for millions, staple of pandemic life – have helped foster a closer community, he said.
Last year, the documentary “Signing Black in America” and the Netflix series “Deaf U” introduced the stories of the deaf to a wider audience.
Similarly, Ms. Smith’s TikTok videos have attracted attention on the internet, including and especially among black audiences.
Ms. Smith said she could envision working with other black deaf people online to tell the stories of black deaf people, adding to the recent explosion in Black ASL content, which has among other things made experts optimistic about Black ASL’s future and its preservation.
“History matters,” she says in a video. “Am I trying to split the language between ASL and BASL? No, I just carried the story. “
On social media in particular, younger black language deaf people have become more open to Black ASL and proudly claim it is part of their culture and identity, said Dr. McCaskill.
“So much has been taken from us historically and they finally feel like this is ours,” she said. “‘This is mine. I own something.'”