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.

Instead of reading for class...

... I've been reading a good old travelogue, like those which sustained my interest for a few years, when I first discovered the Travel Essays section of the bookstore, until I realized that mostly, that shelf does not have new releases very often, and I had read all the best ones already. The rest, I would pick through, but to this day, I have that shelf mostly memorized by its titles and the colors of the spines. (I'm not kidding.) But I hadn't looked at it in a while, and so recently I checked back on it, and found a new publication. Susan Jane Gilman's memoir and travelogue of her travels in China, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven was there, in which she divulges the post-college culture and travel shock that she and her college buddy received when they headed off to China in 1986--then basically still a closed state, for all intents and purposes, and relatively untraveled by the modern American. I immediately loved her candid, honest descriptions of the way travel on your own, for the first time, really feels. ("Not at all triumphant.")

I read two chapters while sitting in the bookstore, ignoring the books I should have been using to do research for summer classes. Of course, as soon as I need to read about Cuba, I want to read about China. But Gilman's narrative has been absolutely engaging, and very funny.

I wanted to share one bit, that rings so true, on the hubris, the adventure-seeking, and the irony behind The Backpacker. That timeless first-world traveler who seeks the true thrills in life. She muses on this very thought (an irony I think about often) while describing the bar scene she has found in Beijing. After three weeks of travel through southern China, Gilman and her friend arrive in Beijing and head out on their first night to toast the kind strangers who have helped them during the day, when their bicycles broke down a number of times while traversing the city. To celebrate, they wind up at the same bar as many of the other backpackers in the city, all of whom begin a story-telling competition to determine, without actually saying so, who is the most hardcore, who has traveled in the worst conditions, so as to win some sort of invented (but totally real, to them) honor among the crowd.

Soon we were all vying to establish our backpacker' street cred, to prove how intrepidly we'd been traveling, how much discomfort we'd incurred at how little expense. The irony of this was wholly lost on us. We were too young and myopic to recognize the perversity of a logic that equates voluntary deprivation with authentic experience. We thought that by wearing burlap pajamas, contracting intestinal parasites, and opting to ride in third class with "the people," we were somehow being less Western and more Asian. It never seemed to occur to us that only privileged Westerners travel to developing countries in the first place, then use them as playgrounds and laboratories for their own enrichment. Only privileged Westerners consider it a badge of honor to forsake modern amenities for a two-dollar-a-night roach-infested guesthouse. Only privileged Westerners sit around drinking beers at prices the natives can't afford while sentimentalizing the nation's lower standard of living and adopting it as a lifestyle.

The Asians we were seeing, of course, didn't live famished agrarian lives due to some sort of Eastern spirituality or enlightenment. Give most of the world's population our money and opportunity, and they weren't going slumming at all. They were booking a Club Med vacation in Cancun and drinking a mai tai.

Granted, it was good, even admirable, that we young backpackers at least attempted to break through the barriers of culture and class to experience firsthand how people in Southeast Asia really lived. But we were kidding ourselves in thinking that we were somehow transcending our Western privileges by doing this.

She gets exactly at some of the complicated feelings I have about being a Westerner traveling in developing countries. All the same, I find them far more interesting than places like France or Greece. (Not dissing those places, by any means.) I just find so much irony in the whole thing, escaping lives we are so lucky to have, to feel something real. But then, I am so fortunate to have been given a life, a nationality, that allows me to explore far beyond my borders. So, I need to use this blessing, right? Being careful not to Orientalize anyone I encounter, along the way.