The Rich History of (Not-So-Erased) Black American Sign Language

The Rich History of (Not-So-Erased) Black American Sign Language

Posted by Clean School Paper on 18th Feb 2021

It's Black History Month, folks. 

It should be like this every single month. In our very first Clean School Paper interview, we sit down for a chat about Black American Sign Language (BASL) with Dr. Carolyn McCaskill, founding director of the Center for Black Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University. Dr. McCaskill is a longtime faculty member and professor at Gallaudet. She became Founding Director of the Center for Black Deaf Studies after several in-depth conversations with Gallaudet President Bobbi Cordano about the need to preserve the Black Deaf experience in America, as well as around the globe.

In our conversation with Carolyn, we discuss a hot topic in today's Deaf community- the linguistic history of Black Deaf America and Black Deaf culture. For those lucky enough to take Deaf Studies under Dr. McCaskill at Gallaudet, it might not come as a surprise that the course was essentially a Black Deaf Studies experience. It wasn't taught in Black American Sign Language, but it did teach us a new way of thinking about what it's like to be a Black Deaf person.

We dive into the history of Black American Sign Language here in this video, presented in American Sign Language and featuring some great examples of BASL. 

This is a topic that's been getting a whole lot of attention in the latter half of 2020 and 2021 - from a Deaf (Jewish) actor featured on a podcast episode where she portrays BASL as " The Erased Language" to a Deaf (white) influencer teaching the sign for Kwanzaa instead of sharing his platform with a Black Deaf or native signer in order to bring that sign to a larger audience. There's a lot of drama, and most of it could have been easily avoided by acknowledging a few simple facts: 

1. Black American Sign Language is an official, not-lost  thing. BASL has its own distinctive features that make it different from American Sign Language;


2. The folks most qualified to talk about BASL are BASL signers. 

The story of Black American Sign Language is, in many ways, reminiscent of the relentless struggle of Afrofuturism, drawing from the past and future. In describing Afrofuturism, Ytasha L. Womack, the author of “ Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture," told the New York Times that "Afrofuturism is constantly moving into the future and back into the past, even with the visual references they’re making.”

So, is Black American Sign Language a form of visual Afrofuturism? Perhaps. If anything, the use of two-handed signs, says Dr. McCaskill, is more formal. It harkens to a sense of the past, when certain signs were not one-handed renditions, but born of a more dignified time. At the same time, the usage and insertion of contemporary Black English into BASL tips the sign language system more towards a brighter, more dazzling future. 

Caught in the past? Definitely not.

More than anything, BASL is careening, sprinting towards the future. 

A terrific documentary, "Signing Black in America," delves into BASL and the cultural values of the Black Deaf community. Make this documentary next on your YouTube video playlist- next time you host a Zoom get-together with your close friends, make it a watch party! Afterwards, discuss what you've learned, or your experiences with BASL. The doc is just too short to encompass everything that makes BASL so unique, but it's a terrific start. 

If you're wondering how you can help contribute to the Center for Black Deaf Studies, check out our links below! 

For more information on BASL and being a Black Deaf person in America:

The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL (hardcover and paperback editions): 


Gallaudet University Press

Signing Black in America (documentary):

The New York Times: 

" Black, Deaf and Extremely Online" // January 27, 2021 - features Dr. Carolyn McCaskill and an in-depth discussion of BASL in the age of TikTok. 

The Washington Post: 

" How America Developed Two Sign Languages - One White, One Black" // February 21, 2020 - features Dr. Carolyn McCaskill again, this time with a special focus on segregation and the difference between BASL and ASL.

How to Support the Center for Black Deaf Studies: 

The Center for Black Deaf Studies is seeking funding for an astounding variety of projects, webinars, workshops, presentations and classes. It's the only center like it in the world. The Center also hopes to support the development of the Center for Latinx Deaf Studies, the Center for Asian Deaf Studies, and other Centers focusing on minority populations within the Deaf community.

Donate now to the Center for Black Deaf Studies:

Many thanks to Dr. McCaskill and the Center for Black Deaf Studies for taking us on this rich visual journey through BASL.

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