The sign language cultural divide: Or, duh! African Americans have their own sign language

I love when something mundane comes out and surprises.

Did you know there is African American sign language, just as there is African American English (AAE, or more popularly, Ebonics)? It is a distinct version of American Sign Language, often including signs and mannerisms entirely different from the standard counterpart.

Researchers have been studying this phenomenon and have found, not surprisingly, "a rich signing system that reflects both a history of segregation and the ongoing influence of spoken black English." Students who learn the sign language taught in their schools return home and use the sign language they grew up using there. Simple words like "shoe" and "school" are communicated with signs entirely unique from one another across the two sign languages.

This is highly fascinating, and yet, absolutely logical. It seems like a no-brainer for a group with a distinct culture and linguistic system to also have its own language for communicating with the deaf. Of course there are differences in style and meaning, in slang, and in body language. It makes total sense that, just as those who are deaf outside the realm of American Sign Language would have their own versions of sign languages, so to would various cultures within the U.S. It just never occurred to me. A Washington Post article addressed this interesting issue:

... It’s hardly surprising, Miller says, that Americans’ segregated pasts led to the development of different signing traditions — and that contemporary cultural differences continue to influence the signing that black and white Americans use.

Some differences result from a familiar history of privation in black education. Schools for black deaf children — the first of them opened some 50 years after the Hartford school was founded, and most resisted integration until well after the Brown v. Board of Educationdecision of 1954— tended to have fewer resources. Students were encouraged to focus on vocational careers — repairing shoes or working in laundries — rather than pursuing academic subjects, Lucas says, and some teachers had poor signing skills.

But a late-19th-century development in the theory of how to teach deaf children led, ironically, to black students’ having a more consistent education in signing. The so-called oralism movement, based on the now controversial notion that spoken language is inherently superior to sign language, placed emphasis on teaching deaf children how to lip-read and speak.

Driven by the slogan “the gesture kills the word,” the oralism theory was put into practice in the United States predominantly in white schools. Black students, Lucas says, were left to manage with their purely manual form of communication.

Ultimately rejected by people who felt it prevented deaf people from developing their “natural,” manual language, oralism fell out of favor in the 1970s and ’80s, but white signers continued to mouth words.

This brings up all sorts of interesting questions for me. Like, which do you sign at a public event, especially if there might be a predominantly African American audience? As someone whose only use of the Englis language is spoken, it is already hard for me to conceptualize a sign or motion for every concept we have in the spoken language, though I know sign language is complex and has its own depth. It just mystifies me even more to imagine that you might fully understand sign language and still not understand someone in your same country, that they could be signing the equivalent of gibberish. Then how do you address the situation, move forward, and communicate among one another? It's probably one of the smaller obstacles deaf people face in their life, really, but it is a foreign to me, which is why I've never thought about it in terms of different races and cultures living in a context of the same spoken language. But it makes perfect sense.

"To be off balance but still under control"

Or: too many ideas, a creative explosion, stunning color palettes, African strip quilts, and me

Sometimes, work and play intersect, overlap, combine. For this week's material culture class, we read four selections, chapters and articles, on design and aesthetic. One of the pieces was a chapter from John M. Vlach's book The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts, and the particular chapter was on African American historical quilting motifs.

Just a few days earlier, I had read a fantastic article from the Wall Street Journal on Denyse Schmidt--easily my favorite designer involved in quilts and modern textiles on this earth. In it, she describes her style as "neo-hillbilly," which is a remarkably apt term, and one that I thought really got to the heart of her improvisational, old-timey, non-conformist, simple designs and motifs. Nearly every time I browse her quilts and patterns, I find something else that inspires me. Sometimes I want to copy her, other times I want to use a technique or a kind of aesthetic she's used to head off in my own direction. I find her entire perspective on quilting fascinating and stimulating.

Reading Vlach's chapter on African American quilting was nothing less than a revelation. Accompanied by many full-page photos of some very old quilt faces, he explains what many may have known before, but I never did: African American quilting aesthetic is grounded in improvisation, and the strip quilt in particular comes almost directly from West African and larger African weaving and textile traditions. The quilt as a form and quilt-making as a practice are European in origin, and so enslaved Africans "encountered the quilt as of the plantation experience."

He goes into great detail about West African applique techniques, patterns, and purpose, but the revelatory part came after, with his description and illustration of the strip quilt.

Denyse Schmidt, in that article, had been talking about the value of state quilt documentation projects for her own inspiration; those are initiatives that were taken up in the 1980s and '90s in nearly every state, urging people to bring in any quilt they knew of, old and ratty, any condition, to document each one and what the owners knew about them at that time, so that their histories could be collected and kept, as an important part of American traditional culture, and as a true collection of Americana art.

I had begun researching these documentation projects, and found the largest compendium of the projects in one place: The Quilt Index. (Browse at your own risk! It may consume your day.) There are also numerous books, by state, on their quilt documentations, including the processes, some of the most significant quilts, and if you're lucky, directions for some of them.

Everything was colliding at once: quilt documentation projects as a source of "hill-billy" and traditional inspiration, from days when making your quilt meant using scraps, old clothing, and feed sacks--sometimes from textiles you have woven yourself--and accurate design came second to having a warm blanket to sleep under; Denyse Schmidt's minimal take on quilting and what constitutes artistic design; and Vlach's chapter on both of these concepts placed right smack dab in their historical place.

All the sudden, I turn to a page and see an "improvisational log cabin motif," identical the one on the quilt I am currently making. Next to it, for comparison, was the precise, mathematical European log cabin form. Here was one of the core bases for my personal inspiration: southern quilting, and African American design aesthetic. As Vlach points out, this approach greatly resembles an improvisational approach to music that creates jazz, in that you must have a mastery of the form of the craft before you can begin to improvise. And African American women who lived in slavery were creating a counterculture exactly their own when they quilted, preserving a cultural memory within the larger colonial and early American traditions surrounding them.

The photos of quilts accompanying Vlach's text were each more fabulous and inspiring and random and thoughtful as the next. (Sadly, I checked out the book from the school library and was sad to find that the book itself is in black and white, meaning I cannot see the pieces in color.) The strip motif derives from the African tradition of men's textile weaving, in which long pieces are woven on a loom and then cut into strips of the right length to be sewn together to form a blanket. For the first time in my life, I felt an itch to learn to use a loom, to make some of this stuff myself and build up a long, winding bundle that I could cut up and stitch into one quilt front.

Some were so simple they were stunningly curved and mix-matched and all too easy to start planning. Others were more composed, but still with that off-kilter charm, the very thing I was finding I wanted in my quilts, and the very thing that Denyse Schmidt makes sure is in each of hers. Not surprisingly, when I found myself in one of my favorite quilt stores a few days later, I ended up leaving with a quilt's worth of fabrics in a palette that I am calling "menswear + African."

By the way, I am already working on two other quilts right now. So yes, this makes three. And I have two jobs and go to grad school full time. What?

But that's why I have Be The Ink, to compile and share my ideas when I can't execute them anywhere else, for the time being.


Another bit on American, African, and identity

I can't help myself, it's just too complex and juicy an issue. Right after I posted that last bit on nationality, in between cleaning a turkey and chopping up salt pork and tons of garlic, yet another discussion hit my radar on origins, culture, and what you most relate to. This time we're examining the African-American identity, in Malik Washington's writing titled "Embracing the Africa in African-American," part of Michael Martin's Tell Me More blog series on The bit that gets to the heart of this matter, and obviously resonates with what we've been discussing:

"Are you black Americans or white Americans?"

That was the question put to me and other African-Americans, in a junior high classroom in Accra, Ghana.

For some of the visitors, it was utterly offensive. For others, it was simply shocking. How could we, black people, be confused for white?

For me, it was utterly simple.

The question came as no surprise since so many African-Americans don’t see themselves as African. That, by default, just leaves them identified as just “American”. The very term “American”, after all, implies “white”. Everybody else gets a hyphen.

Many African-Americans, in fact, don’t know what to think of themselves.

African? American? Both? Or neither? “Black” seems to be an accepted hybrid term that falls short of claiming either entity yet still denotes exceptionalism in this society.

Nonetheless, this ambiguity isn’t entirely neutral, as black people generally seem prone to distance themselves more from Africa, than America – either consciously or sub-consciously.

This brings me back to thinking about the era not so long ago in American politics, when slavery was the thorn in the government's side, and politicians just did not know what an America with free whites and blacks living alongside each other would look like, or how it would function after such a system ended. One of the popular ideas was to send freedpeople "back to Africa," to a population that would theoretically understand or relate to them better. Obviously absurd to us now, what is most absurd is thinking that African-Americans who had been born and lived their entire lives in this country could possibly be considered not of this country. Certainly the African-American fused culture had taken on a life of its own by this point, creating a large minority of Americans whose customs and food ways and stories and religion had distinct African influences; that is what scared white politicians and many of their constituents.

But there is no returning to sender, no reversal of time when whole lives have been founded in new and divergent societies, and indeed, when new cultures are created from the fusion of others. This is another thing I have been trying to illustrate. Because someone's ancestors were not like ours, it is all the more important that we take time to understand cultural nuances that exist side by side in one singular, yet multicultural, society (and, incidentally, world).

Once the African-American identity had calcified, it could neither be ignored or removed. While some slaves had seen Africa, it was  a very low number by the time abolition became a seriously debated political issue, and even fewer African-Americans today would probably identify as precisely with the African continent as they did then. Yet they are not, do not consider themselves, that "white American" that was mentioned in Washington's musing. That nationality is distinct from white American, yet an immovable part of the larger national identity.