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.