Ignored No More: Voices Shine through Black American Sign Language

Black woman laughing pointing and standing in front of a blue concrete wall

In the past year, American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters have become much more visible, from interpreting at local political debates to being included in official White House coronavirus briefings late last year. These are important steps in making information and community events more accessible for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing populations. But Deaf communities are very diverse, and sign language has different regional variations and dialects, just like spoken language. One of those dialects is Black American Sign Language.

The History of Black American Sign Language

Black ASL, or BASL for short, dates back to the 1860s when the first schools for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing populations opened in the U.S. Schools were segregated in the South, so Black and white students learned their own distinct versions of ASL. Like all dialects, BASL has some of its own unique vocabulary and grammatical features. Even the sign for “Black Lives Matter” can be slightly different in BASL than in ASL.

Integration in schools didn’t come until after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, so Black and white signers had difficulty understanding each other in the following decades. Many signers have learned how to “code switch” depending on the group or individual they’re communicating with.

Still a long way to go

Even today, a language barrier can exist between Deaf communities, and a lack of diverse sign language interpreters negatively affects Black Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. According to a 2019 report by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc., about 85% of interpreters are white. This can create challenges for some Deaf individuals, especially if the interpreter doesn’t understand a person’s background or cultural identity.

But recently some Black ASL signers and organizations, such as The Language and Life Project, have been creating informative videos to help raise awareness of this unique dialect and its cultural significance to Black communities.

Signers answer, “What is Black American Sign Language?” in a video by The Language and Life Project.

An interview with ASL interpreter Rashana

Recently our team had the opportunity to catch up with Rashana C., an ASL interpreter based in Georgia who’s familiar with Black ASL. We asked a few quick questions about her experience as a professional interpreter and communicating in both ASL and BASL. Rashana shared her insights below.

What was your ASL education like? Did you have both Black and white ASL teachers?

Rashana: I learned from both Black and white ASL users at my former job in a post office. I was around 21 years old when I first started learning. I took to sign language quickly and spent all of my time with Deaf coworkers outside of work, going to silent dinners, traveling to events, and subsequently co-parenting a CODA (a child of deaf adult).

I later graduated from a local interpreter training program, passed a QA, and have had two RID (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf) certifications ever since. 

When did you first realize the difference between ASL and BASL?

Rashana: I noticed there was a difference in signing as I began to get fluent. 

Can you walk us through a typical interpreting session with a Black ASL signer? Do you wait to see if the signer uses ASL or BASL?

Rashana: I do have a short conversation when possible to assess their language so that I match. But I don’t really think of it as checking to see if they’re going to sign BASL or ASL. I notice with BASL that there are variations in certain signs and in the way that they sign. 

What advice do you have for ASL interpreters who might not be familiar with BASL?

Rashana: I would tell interpreters who aren’t familiar with BASL to just be patient and respectful of the signer. 

With the ongoing racial justice movement and the recognition of the need for more interpreters, we hope that awareness of BASL continues to spread and makes information and events more inclusive for the diverse Deaf communities.

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