American Sign Language (ASL) has a complicated history in the U.S. Prior to 1817, hearing families of deaf children relied on informal signs to communicate. That changed for some when Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet opened the American School for the Deaf that same year. Adopting the methods of the National Institute for Deaf Children of Paris, he helped create a formal signing system for deaf students. But deaf African American children were excluded from receiving an education.
The Origin of Black American Sign Language (BASL)
While white children could learn ASL as early as 1817, it wasn’t until after the Civil War that African American children could do the same. In 1869, the North Carolina School for the Negro Deaf and Blind opened to serve the community. However, due to segregation, the students began learning a distinct form of ASL that would one day be known as Black American Sign Language.
Although school segregation was ruled unlawful in 1954, many schools in the American South remained largely segregated into the 1970s. That meant deaf African American students who lived in the region continued learning BASL.
Today, deaf African American students attend integrated schools and learn to use ASL in formal settings. Yet many still prefer to use BASL among family, friends, and within their community.
How BASL Differs From ASL
The two languages are mutually intelligible, but BASL has a few distinct features. These include using:
- Larger signing spaces, which means signs are produced further away from the body.
- Two-handed variants of signs.
- More facial expressions.
- African American slang.
- More repetition.
To see for yourself, check out this two-minute video with Charmay, the 22-year-old deaf TikToker who went viral.
Interpreting for BASL
In some settings, an ASL interpreter with a background in BASL can more accurately interpret between sign language and English. That’s because an understanding of the cultural differences and nuances of BASL helps ensure no information is lost. Church services and Hip-hop concerts are just two types of events where BASL interpreting makes all the difference.
Preserving BASL for Future Generations
Unfortunately, BASL hasn’t always received the respect and recognition it deserves. Even today, ASL is often considered the standard for deaf signers.
As Carolyn McCaskill, a professor at Gallaudet University told ABC News, “White is right—that’s what I thought. That was what was prevalent.” A deaf sign language user herself, she wants to change that perception. McCaskill has already written a book titled The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL and is the founding director of Gallaudet’s Center for Black Deaf students.
Organizations such as the North Carolina Black Deaf Advocates (NCBDA) have also developed programming that fosters and protects BASL as well as members of the community.
So, what can you do to help it alive? By spreading the world about BASL and its unique culture, we can all help debunk the myth that it’s an inferior form of sign language!