Carolyn McCaskill & Ceil Lucas, both Professors at Gallaudet University

The Hidden Treasury of Black American Sign Language: Its History and Structure

When: Friday, March 1, 2013, 8:00pm
Where: Science Center 101

Open to the Public
ASL interpreters provided

The Black ASL Project is a language project which aims to describe the linguistic features of a variety of American Sign Language (ASL) used by African American signers and usually known as Black ASL. The project is sponsored by Gallaudet University’s Department of Linguistics and Department of ASL and Deaf Studies and is supported in part by the Spencer Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

Professors McCaskill and Lucas will report on their project, showing how particular grammatical characteristics of Black ASL have their roots in the racial segregation of schools in the south after the Civil War.

Sponsored by: Black Cultural Center, Black Studies, Disability Office, Educational Studies, Intercultural Center, Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, Linguistics, Provost's Office, Psychology, Sociology and Anthropology

Below is the abstract for the talk:

This presentation will provide an overview of a historical and linguistic project on Black ASL focusing on school history, generational differences, and language differences. Ninety-six Deaf African-American informants in two age groups (over 55 and under 35) were interviewed in 6 of the 17 states where schools were racially segregated. We analyzed language patterns in Black ASL, for example, 2-handed signs, role-shifting, and the influence of African American English (AAE). We also report on the informants‚ perceptions of language use which help explain how some Black signs were created, remained or disappeared over time. This project is funded by National Science Foundation.

Sponsored by the Spencer Foundation and the National Science Foundation, the Black ASL project began in 2007 with two goals: 1) to determine if specific linguistic features could be identified to characterize the signing of the Black Deaf community as a distinct variety of American Sign Language (ASL), and 2) to describe the socio-historical reality that would make the emergence of this variety possible.

Formal education of deaf children began in the United States with the founding of the American School for the Deaf in 1817 and schools for deaf children were never formally segregated in the North. Education was not allowed for Black deaf children in the South until 1869, when the first school was opened in Raleigh, North Carolina. Sixteen other southern states and the District of Columbia established schools for Black deaf children, the last one being Louisiana in 1938. Most resisted the integration mandated by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, finally allowing desegregation in the mid-1960s, with Louisiana desegregating in 1978. This socio-historical reality allowed for the emergence of a distinct variety of ASL.

The analysis identified a number of linguistic features that distinguish this variety and also shows that, as a result of integration and mainstreaming, the variety is changing. One striking finding is that the Black signers, both young and old, consistently use more traditional and standardized forms of signs, directly challenging perceptions that Black signing is somehow " inferior".