Wednesday, February 12, 2020

ASL (American Sign Language) & Black ASL- Yes, There Is A Difference: Three Article Excerpts About Black ASL

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post showcases three online articles about Black ASL (American Sign Language).

Two videos that are featured in the second article that is included in this post.

The content of this post is presented for cultural and educational purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the publishers of these videos on YouTube.
Click for a video example of Black ASL. Other pancocojams posts that feature Black ASL can be found by clicking that tag below this post.

From 'A Deaf Linguist Explores Black American Sign Language' by Heidi Landecker, January 9, 2014
"Joseph Hill, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, believes he is the only black, deaf, Ph.D. linguist in America, and maybe in the world.


Many hearing people think sign language is universal, but it is not. [Dr. Joseph] Hill, who was born deaf, studied in Italy on a Fulbright and speaks Italian, as well as ASL, Italian SL, and Black ASL. American Sign Language developed based on the French sign language that Thomas Gallaudet learned from Clerc, so American and French signers understand one another better than British and American signers do, for example.

Hill is one of four authors of The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL, a 2011 book that explores the differences between Black American Sign Language and the ASL of whites in America. The differences are significant enough that black deaf students who went to segregated schools couldn’t understand white teachers and classmates when the schools integrated. The researchers created a filmed corpus of conversational vernacular Black ASL as it is used in the South, and the book examines some of those differences, which include disparate gestures for some words, such as “deer” and “have,” and whether words are signed with one hand or two.

But Hill, who is a member of the specialized-education-services department at the Greensboro campus and directs its ASL teacher-licensing program, says there are many more research opportunities, including chronicling changes in Black ASL as its signers have more contact with white signers, and with spoken African-American Vernacular English. He told us about the Black ASL Project, which seeks the recollections of people who went to black schools for the deaf. Much more is to be learned about the schools themselves. And his own research has only begun to look at lexical variations between ASL and Black ASL—the different signs for the same word—and at what linguists call “prosody” in sign, the use of facial expressions, eye and head movement, and other physical behaviors.

“Black signers tend to be more theatrical,” he said later via telephone, using a video relay service and an ASL interpreter to take the call. White signers, especially older people, may sign in a smaller space because they were taught to be discreet."...
Here are two comments from this article's discussion thread:
nyhist, 2013
"A fascinating book about another version of a separate sign language that might have contributed to the creation of ASL (many of its practitioners were among the students at the Hartford school) is Nora Groce, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language, about the hereditary deaf community of Chilmark, Mass."

Unemployed_Northeastern, 2013
"Indeed. Though the article disabuses me of this notion, when I saw this link on CHE's homepage, my initial line of thought was that there is a separate sign language developed on Martha's Vineyard (Chilmark), and one of the first vacation spots for African Americans, going back to the late 1800's, was also on the Vineyard (Oak Bluffs), so I was wondering if the two strands - Vineyard ASL and Black ASL - had any common ancestry. But it would seem that the latter was developed in the south as a consequence of Jim Crow laws barring children from all receiving an equal education."...

ASL and Black ASL: Yes, There's a Difference
by Amy Stretten, 2/25/14
..."Code-switching involves moving freely between two different languages or dialects of a single language. For many people of color, especially mixed-race and multi-cultural people, code-switching is natural and happens in speech without much thought–if any at all.

The same can be said about Sheena Cobb, 29. Cobb uses both ‘mainstream’ American Sign Language (ASL) and Black ASL depending on who she is with.

“I've used mainstream ASL because a lot of people in the community use it, she said through a video-phone interpreter system called VRS. "When I'm with black deaf people, then we usually, naturally revert to Black ASL."

... Dr. Carolyn McCaskill, professor of ASL and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet, a federally chartered private university for the deaf and hard of hearing located in Washington, D.C., has called this type of switch cultural and linguistic code-switching.

But the act of code-switching, at least among the black deaf is nothing new. Phrases like “what’s up” and “my bad” are signed differently in Black ASL, which tends to be more expressive in nature than mainstream ASL.

A common misconception is that sign language is a universal language. It is not. In fact, there are more than 200 distinct sign languages around the world.

According to Dr. Joseph Hill, assistant professor in the Professions of Deafness Programs at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, language variation happens for two reasons: social factors (such as age, gender, race and socio-economics) and geographical factors (such as whether someone is from the North or the South). So, it would be impossible for there to be one universal sign language.


Because "black deaf people have been exposed to the same social elements that black hearing people enjoy and practice in their communities, it makes sense that there are elements of black culture that appear in Black ASL such as religious practice, cooking, humor, musical entertainment, clothing, hairstyles, words and phrases that typically used in the black communities, and protections against racism," said Dr. Hill in an e-mail.

People who use Black ASL tend to sign with two hands, in different positions, in a larger signing space and with more repetition than with mainstream ASL signs.


According to Dr. Hill, there exists some bias against Black ASL among the deaf, just like there is against Ebonics among hearing people."...
This article features these two videos:


Mike Carter-Conneen, Jun 6, 2011

Video #2: Black ASL

ASLized!, Mar 22, 2012

Signed and produced by Dr. Joseph Hill at

‘We Have 14 Black Deaf Americans With Ph.D.s—14’
"A conversation with a deaf-studies professor and a student she’s been supporting throughout his academic career"
by B.R.J. O'DONNELL, AUGUST 16, 2017
"In many ways, Gallaudet University looks like any other liberal-arts college in America: Brick buildings and leafy walkways are abundant on its campus in Washington, D.C. But at Gallaudet, American Sign Language (ASL) is the lingua franca, and creating space for deaf culture a main priority. Walking to class, students sign in rapid-fire bursts of kinetic language.

Franklin Jones Jr. is one of those students. Though he is thriving now—having gotten his undergraduate degree and now attending graduate school at the university—his path has been a difficult one. In fact, Franklin wasn’t sure college was for him at all. But Dr. Carolyn McCaskill, a professor of deaf studies at Gallaudet who researches the history and structure of black ASL, worked with Franklin to make sure he reached graduation. Not only did he do that, but he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in ASL, linguistics, and deaf studies, and he was selected to deliver remarks at his graduation ceremony.

For The Atlantic’s series on mentorship, “On The Shoulders Of Giants,” I spoke with Jones Jr. and McCaskill about their bond, the experience of being black and deaf in America, and how mentorship can promote inclusion.

B.R.J. O’Donnell: Can you talk about what black ASL is particularly well-suited to capturing and communicating?

Carolyn McCaskill: You know how some people may talk loud? I sign loud. So that's one of the features—a larger signing space. Two-handed signing is also one of the features. In mainstream ASL, someone might just sign with one hand, but in black ASL, two-handed signs are also okay. And then there is repetition. If you sign, “I’m getting out of here,” you will sign it not just once, but twice—you might even sign it three times, for emphasis and also for clarification purposes. So we incorporate our culture from black English in our signing."...

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  1. Fyi, I don't know how to sign, but my daughter (who is hearing) has been interested in signing for some time and has taken a number of sign language classes. She is currently taking a sign language class now and co-leads an elementary school sign language club at her daughter's public school.

    1. I believe that it's important to note that every Black American who signs doesn't necessarily sign with Black ASL and those Black Americans who do sign with Black ASL probably code-switch from ASL to Black ASL and vice versa depending on where they are and who they are with.

      Also, just as non-Black American people use African American Vernacular English, I'm sure that some non-Black American people (including non-Black people) sign with Black ASL.