[ By Kai Hansen ]
Hello everyone, and happy Deaf History Month!
You might be surprised to know that sign language, like spoken language, has dialects, accents, and regional differences, not to mention that there are multiple different languages beneath the umbrella of sign language. American Sign Language (ASL) is a different language than Chinese Sign Language (CSL) which is a different language than Spanish Sign Language (LSE) and so on. You may have heard of Black English, but did you know that Black American Sign Language (BASL) also exists?
Early American Sign Language, influenced by French Sign Language, was originally taught at schools for the Deaf, however, in the 1870s and 80s, white schools for the Deaf became more focused on oralism, which emphasizes speaking and lip-reading rather than signing. People didn’t care about Black Deaf kids enough to teach oralism, so Black Deaf schools continued to teach sign language and many sign language instructors moved to Black Deaf Schools. Consequently, modern BASL is more closely aligned than ASL to early American Sign Language. BASL evolved into its own language, and by the time schools were desegregated, Black Deaf students often struggled to communicate with their white teachers and peers. From that point on, ASL was used in the classroom, but BASL’s usage was continued among family and friends.
Since ASL was taught in schools from that point onward, it is now considered the standard, and just as Black hearing people code-switch between standard English and Black English to fit in in the classroom or among white people, BASL users frequently code-switch between BASL and ASL. Chair of the newly created department Black Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University and co-author of the book Black ASL, Dr. Carolyn McCaskill was one of the first Black students to attend Alabama School for the Deaf. She is quoted saying “So when I was with white people, I would sign that way. And then when I was with Black Deaf people, I would communicate it differently.”
So how is BASL different from ASL? People who use BASL tend to use more facial expressions and use more space with their signing. BASL users also tend to use two hands for signs where ASL users would use one. Additionally, BASL places signs on the forehead more often than ASL, which tends to place signs on the body. While BASL and ASL are very closely related, some signs are completely different. Over time BASL has incorporated terms that are common in Black English. When asked about BASL, Dr. McCaskill responded “[BASL] felt so free to me. It felt good to just communicate. You know, that was who I was. That was my culture. That was my identity.”
Research on BASL is a long way behind research in ASL; however, with the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, BASL is now gaining more recognition. It is estimated that 50% of Black Deaf people in the United States use BASL. This was made possible by BASL being preserved intergenerationally through Black Deaf families and also the Black Deaf community. Black Deaf signers are now taking to social media to teach and preserve this important part of Black Deaf culture and identity.
This article is a factual summary of BASL and its history written by a white hearing person. If you are interested in learning more about BASL and the culture surrounding it, check out the videos below:
Kai Hansen is a sophomore at the University of Kansas, double majoring in English & Biology with a minor in Dance. A member of the University Honors Program with plans to become an English professor, Kai is actively engaged in the study of Black and queer literature.