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An introduction to Black American Sign Language (Black ASL)

Black ASL, Black History Month

February is Black History Month. For many, it’s a time to pay homage to the Black community’s contributions to society and culture on a global scale. Through various articles this month, we are honoring the multi-faceted role the Black community plays in our daily lives, more specifically, within the language world. Our mission at KUDO is to break language barriers. This week we’re taking a deep dive into Black American Sign Language also known as Black ASL.

What is Black ASL?

Black ASL is a non-verbal form of communication that reflects the spoken characteristics of African American Vernacular English. Much like the cultural and linguistic contrast between African American Vernacular English and Standard English, Black ASL dates back to the era of segregation. Although the first American school for the deaf was created in 1817, Black students were not permitted entry until 1952 (www.hearinglikeme.com). This division created a gap that separated the two nonverbal languages, resulting in cultural divergence and a lack of educational coordination. The result- a difference between Sign Languages, thus explaining the birth of Black American Sign Language.

A Closer Look into History

Long before education for deaf Black children was available in the 1850s, they learned sign language through a technique known as “home signing.” Home signs were non-verbal signatures used between deaf people and their families, friends, and other immediate contacts. Eventually, these skills were expanded upon through formal education. Schools for Black ASL were established following the Civil War. Although Black students were finally allowed an education, the teaching in question was often of poor quality, especially in comparison to those received by their white counterparts (www.hearinglikeme.com). When integration started, deaf students of both races could not decipher one another’s Sign Language. This language barrier, and other factors, led to the neglect of Black ASL as a “valid” Sign Language. However, this form of signing has evolved and was passed down through generations of the deaf Black community and is widely used today.

Significance

Along with AAVE, the validity of Black ASL is often challenged. Furthermore, the lack of acknowledgment for these languages has proven harmful on a communicative level and also culturally. Despite the multi-layered marginalization that the deaf Black community has experienced, they have managed to flourish linguistically and weave a vital thread in the tapestry of North American linguistics.

What does Black ASL look like?

The contrast between Black ASL and standard ASL is noticeable. In comparison to standard ASL, Black ASL often utilizes two hands, in different positions, with a higher repetition rate and greater space use (www.splinternews.com). Because of these differences, code-switching remains prevalent among both non-hearing and hearing members of this group.

As we work to bridge language barriers globally, we will continue to celebrate the ways in which the languages and dialects of every culture add vibrance, color, and richness to the world that exists today. No culture holds status over another, and no language is deserving of any degree of erasure.

What is KUDO?

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