Black American Sign Language

ASL interpreter stands behind man speaking at desk for COVID warningSince the pandemic became news, many more people are seeing American Sign Language (ASL) intrepreters at news conferences and countless online events. You may notice a wide variety in signing styles or accents. Yes, you can have an accent or dialect while using signed langauge just like spoken language! YouTube offers many instructional videos about learning ASL. They often tell you the "right way" to sign a word. I am white. I was born deaf at the end of the 1960s. I was an "oral success" who also learned ASL. I know well that while ASL is a complete language, there isn't one correct way to sign anymore than there is one correct way to speak American English. When I moved from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Florida in the 2000s, I received some friendly teasing from new Deaf friends for my "fancy" yankee signing!

Black clip art hand signing the letters BASL

                                                                                                                                                                    Black American Sign Language (BASL)

There are more than just generational and regional differences. A major divergence from mainstream ASL was created by the segregation of schools in the American South. Like other schools in the 1800s- mid-1900s, deaf schools were segregated based on race, creating separate language communities among deaf signers: white signers at white schools and Black signers at Black schools. 


Black and white photo of black teens writing on the blackboard in a deaf school

Linguistically, BASL differs from other varieties of ASL in its phonology, syntax, and vocabulary. BASL tends to have a larger signing space--some signs are produced further away from the body than in other dialects. Signers of BASL also tend to prefer two-handed variants of signs, while signers of ASL tend to prefer one-handed variants. Some signs are different in BASL as well with some borrowings from African American English.

White Deaf man signs sorry




You can see that this white Deaf man signs "sorry," rubbing his closed fist over his heart.





Black Deaf woman signs "my bad"






Dr. Carolyn McCaskill, a professor of ASL and Deaf Culture at Gallaudet University, America's only college of the deaf, in Washington, D.C., and leading expert and scholar on BASL, signs the same word as "my bad." She taps the back of her closed fist over her heart.

Neither is right or wrong. Both should be equally respected. Though that isn't always the case. The first school for the deaf in the United States, the American School for the Deaf (ASD), was founded in 1817 but did not admit any Black students until 1952. Black students who were eventually integrated into white schools were made to feel inferior and that they must conform to traditional standards. But the culture and history in Black deaf schools created a legacy of kinship and pride which continues in BASL speakers today. 


Outlines of three Black women make the signs for Black Lives Matter


Since the beginning of the year, BASL has become more visible due to the Black Lives Matter movement. Even the phrase "Black Lives Matter" is different in mainstream ASL and BASL. Some white signers adopted the BASL sign in solidarity and did not understand why BASL speakers asked them not to do it. It was well-meaning, but using someone’s signed dialect is the same as imitating a person’s spoken accent. It’s always best to ask if you’re unsure.

There is a definitive study by Dr. McCaskill, The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure. It's an expensive academic text the library does not own. However, Gallaudet University offers chapter by chapter videos of the book narrated by Dr. McCaskill on their YouTube channel. It's worth your time to go down the rabbit hole of learning about something new. In the meantime, watch this overview of Dr. McCaskill talking about her personal history, ASL code switching and BASL. Be conscious and aware of the diversity and prejudices that exist within marginalized comunities. 



Signs of solidarity for deaf black people

Posted by AnnL on August 27, 2020