How Americans Created Two Sign Languages: One White, One Black

How Americans Created Two Sign Languages: One White, One Black

The documentary “Signing Black in America” describes how a distinctive black signing system, or Black ASL, has evolved, The Washington Post reports.

The film describes the historic isolation of members of the black deaf community and their contemporary sense of solidarity.

The signs are often larger, using two hands when white signers use one, and gestured closer to the forehead than the chin. Some words are represented by completely different signs.

“I’m always told by deaf African Americans, ‘I am black first; then I’m deaf,’” says Felicia Redd. “White deaf people are deaf first and then white.” Redd is black but was taught sign language by white teachers.

The Washington Post reports that sign language, like spoken language, varies by region (people sign more slowly in the South, for example), along with features that reflect gender, age, socioeconomic status — and race.

Educational and social segregation set black signers apart in the 1860s, when schools opened for them, leading to the development of separate grammatical features and vocabulary.

Read more:

Watch the video “Signs of Solidarity”

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