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.

American Dream, sure, but also, Chinese Dream, French Dream: a changing reality

It is an oft-approached topic in college history classes: American exceptionalism. Especially when you get to the graduate level, you only discuss it more. Americans, throughout history, have touted themselves, their brand of government and social structure, their notions of upward mobility, and their presence in other nations as products of the fated "city on a hill," the America that was bound to be exceptional. And notice, we will discuss, how it is only us saying this.

With the very powerful notion (but largely myth) of American exceptionalism comes his brother, the American Dream. That idea that your lineage does not matter, you can be upwardly mobile no matter your humble beginnings, and you can dream of a better life for your children. Yesterday will be better than today. For the most part, this Dream is at least a decade deceased; it has been waning since the mythical, glorious, shiny post-war era of the 1950s. The pursuit of happiness that continued in earnest until we had filled out the entire North American continent, east to west, reaching the end of the American Frontier, is harder to seek in a world filled with limitations on that lusted-after open road and endless new beginnings. Starting over, a concept we still seek in earnest. People still show up in the United States every day hoping to do that same thing for their own lives and families. It is a testament to how strong that hope--that Dream concept--is that it still propels our lives hundreds of years after it began, and the thought of the hope (and then fear) new immigrants feel can sometimes bring me to tears. I sincerely hope we can deliver. I fear that often we don't, and cannot.

The lost and dying American Dream notion is so entrenched in the American psyche that most have a hard time believing its demise is even possible. But it takes no master of logic to understand that time is not a constant march uphill, humankind cannot possibly continue on an upward, constant positive, path of improvement. That's impossible. Also impossible is the hegemony of one nation to dominate the planet for any really long period of time. Nations fade. Not only is the demise of the American Dream possible, it is reality.

A recent article by Jon Meacham in Time magazine gets to this point, to the crucial difference we face as a nation today that was not present in previous times of recession and economic hardship: the rest of the planet. The article quotes author Jim Cullen, who wrote the 2003 book, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation:

In the 19th and 20th centuries, no one spoke of the French Dream of the Russian Dream, but in the 21st century, it probably is possible to speak of a Chinese Dream.

The article points out that, "strangely, it's now possible for the French to be more socially and economically mobile than Americans."

I don't intend to wax negative about the future of the United States, it just bothers me when so many of my fellow citizens have such unrealistic and idealistic notions about our nation as a whole, its success, its stability, and its future. Don't you knuckleheads know anything about the other empires of the past? Empires fade, and the people living in them readjust their expectations and lives around their new realities.

I still have great hope that we can contribute to the larger goals of a successful planet, in terms of innovation, technology, environmental sustainability, medicine, art, philosophy, education and other crucial areas. But our lifestyles and our concepts of what's normal and possible within our modern day will have to be taken down a few pegs. Certainly, there are billions of other ambitious people in other countries that now have opportunities they never dreamed possible, in their own nations. We have a lot of other people in the race with us, competing, inventing, influencing; our role in all of this has changed. Within that, our goals and ambitions and expectations have changed to--we just haven't adjusted well to them. But I hope we can.


Little Boxes... made of ticky-tacky

... and they're all made out of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same.

This little ditty was the opening theme song for the television show Weeds, whose primary theme for the first three seasons was a critique of the suburban culture, lifestyle, vanities, and contradictions. Housewives and business professionals are smoking dope far more often than you might assume (but then again, this is the southern California version of the suburbs we are talking about, in the show).

But the theme song has always been the great, obvious reminder of the writers' criticism of the suburbs as somehow more safe, with less vice, and the fledgling perception that it is somehow filled with more wholesome people. Most obviously, it points out that all the "little boxes on the hillside," while they might be green, yellow, and blue, are all the same. Little cookie cutters set up for a life of Jonesing (by which I mean, keeping up with them).

One of my favorite exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art on our recent visit was an exploration of the city, the suburb, and our relationship to these different kinds of spaces. It revolved around the Buell Hypothesis, which is brilliantly simple at its core: change the dream and you change the city.

This deeply resonated with me; because, yes, I have taken a class on the history of the U.S. city and its development, the fallacies we have believed about them, and the many mistakes we have made in expanding them. We have had some victories too, and I think we are in an era now where we are becoming better equipped at adjusting the errs. Urban sprawl, the desire for the suburban "space"--which is, having a little yard next to your neighbor's little yard--the single-family house, the two-cars-and-garage, the desire for this "American Dream" has resulted in enormous masses of Metropolitan Statistical Areas--giant areas that now constitute the urban area of a city, and with tragically awful commutes for the people living an hour outside, as the only transportation system to accomodate the two-car dream is the interstate highway.

The Metro Statistical Area of Atlanta includes 28 counties, including the city of Athens, more than an hour east of the center. I think MSAs are fascinating beasts, and I've written about my thoughts on the cityscape before. Atlanta is one of the worst offenders of sprawl, the expansion of low-density development that saps the previously natural and open spaces that once surrounded a city, and replaces them with strip malls, big-box stores, retail centers, and many series of little rows of houses surrounding a singular winding street.

Plenty of people get really angry about sprawl, including the guy who wrote this book about it. In an article I talk about about here, the environmental benefits of reversing sprawl are explored: people in cities are using way less energy per capita to survive, period. The thing is, it is so hard to stop, to reverse, because we have not yet worked to redefine "the dream," as the Buell Hypothesis so simple stated. It was like a lightning bolt struck me. Of course. When we redefine what it means to be successful in this United States of the 21st Century, where, ahem, we are no longer the powerhouse leader of the universe and we better get over it fast, we can begin to properly analyze, repair, and improve the lives of so many living in our urban areas--as far out as they have spread. We can change our own perceptions of the kinds of spaces in which we live, work, play, thrive, towards more sustainable living in the population-seven-billion world of today. And it all, fundamentally, comes down to one uncomplicated sentence. Change the dream and you change the city.

Plus, it was just very fun to browse the theoretical models for housing systems of the future, when cities are a much larger part of the dream, and the family dwelling space for the majority of urban/suburban people might look quite different. So exciting. But I love cities. You already knew that. 


Reflections of Culture: Newfound Perspectives from Spending Eight Weeks in China

I would say that I am very independent, as an American yes, but even compared to some of my friends and others I observe—both my age and older than me. Eating on my own, enjoying my own free time and interests, and wearing things that are a little off-kilter do not bother me as they would some. I value this sense of individuality, and find that living in America has allowed me to develop this aspect of my personality.

I would also say that I am by no means a slave to the mainstream popular culture of the United States. I haven’t listened to Britney Spears or Backstreet Boys since middle school, I don’t drink Coca-Cola or Sprite, eat at McDonald’s, watch Desperate Housewives or wear the fashion that appears in the latest Hollywood films and high-fashion beauty magazines. In fact, I make it a point not to read those magazines, I much prefer independent films (or at least those that have a bit more depth) and I listen to a wide variety of music that includes acoustic, alternative and classic rock, classical, and even things like Celtic and Bhangra. I rarely eat fast-food, and much prefer healthy, fresh foods and water to the classic American brands and chains. And as far as television, I’m a failure even by the standards of my friends, as I don’t even know which channels are which if I ever do turn on the TV.

I also religiously read National Geographic, as anyone who meets me soon discovers, and am always interested in learning more about others and their culture. That is why, arriving in China, I was a bit taken aback by how “American” I felt. I found myself immediately missing ice-cold water in a huge glass at each meal, and the simple American breakfast of cereal or toast and coffee (brewed, not instant). I noticed that I identified with the foods in McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, and have thoroughly enjoyed each time I have eaten at either restaurant, even if I overlook them both in the States. While Starbucks is expensive by any nation’s standards, it is not so much the name and the product I found myself missing, but the quiet escape it brings. I cherish quiet moments, and they are hard to find when out in public in China. I also noticed that I do visit Barnes and Noble and Borders often at home, and took for granted the availability of English-language reading material. Even things as simple as streetlights along less-public roads or overhead lights down a dormitory hallway— which are always shedding light in the United States— are frugally used to conserve energy here in China, a practice that hadn’t crossed my American-energy-consuming mind. I am now perfectly used to returning home to a dark, gloomy hallway outside my dorm room’s door, and believe it to be a very rational practice.

There are aspects of American life that I miss, but aspects of Chinese life that are much more sensible, and it has been a very thought-provoking process adapting my life for two months to that of an outsider staying in China, living among the Chinese. While I knew I would stand out, it became a very clear reality when walking down the street and feeling the eyes follow every step, aware that everything I am wearing and doing is being considered. While I do not consider myself a product or representative of the “mainstream” American culture, I do represent it to those people on the street who observe me—for better or worse. I came to terms with this reality, accepting the fact that I would be associated with things like loose moral values and Linkin Park. I also began to grow this little bubble of pride inside myself, thinking, Hey, it’s a pretty cool thing to be from the United States. I don’t mean this in a prideful way, I mean it honestly and appreciatively—it is a privilege to live in the U.S., and to maintain the lifestyle I have. No, I am not as rich as the people in the glamorous movies the Chinese see (and therefore consider to be normal American life), but the fact that I have traveled this far to visit their country already speaks volumes about my freedom and opportunities. This is not necessarily a new revelation, it is a very widely-stated fact, and people are always heralding how Americans take for granted how we live, and I agree with that.

What I am saying is that while I feel very fortunate and blessed to be an American, I never considered myself a stereotypical citizen by any meaning of the word. As such, living in China has stirred a new sense of identity as an “American,” in that I have realized how very well I recognize that culture in myself.

This trip has been much more than an introspective experience; I have learned volumes about other Americans, Chinese culture, society and life, traveling for extended periods, homesickness, human nature, food, shopping, bartering, language and communication—the list goes on. So I hate to leave my narrative blogs on a note of personal revelation, but I feel like this sense of identity is a good way of wrapping up the learning process as a whole. Considering all the things I’ve learned only reinforces this newfound perspective I didn’t know I had—it will come as no surprise to those who know me, but I’ve learned that I am in fact an independent, open-minded, curious and joyous American college student. My experience in China has added another dimension to this identity of mine, one that will become clearer as I return to the United States and merge my new perspective with the life I left behind in May.

China has changed the way I see things and has endowed me with stories to tell for years to come—intangible but valuable things I hope to share with all of you in person. Writing blogs until I ran out of words would not explain all of it.