“I have to make sure my hands are not ashy before I sign,” Nakia Smith, who is deaf, explained to her nearly 400,000 followers.
In one of the dozens of popular videos she posted to TikTok last year, Ms. Smith compared her habit of adding a quick dab of lotion to her hands before she starts signing to the sip of water a hearing person takes before beginning to speak.
Since Ms. Smith created her account last April, the small ritual has caught millions of eyes, drawing attention to a corner of the internet steeped in the history and practice of a language that some scholars say is too frequently overlooked: Black American Sign Language, or BASL.
Variations and dialects of spoken English, including what linguists refer to as African-American English, have been the subject of intensive study for years. But research on Black ASL, which differs considerably from American Sign Language, is decades behind, obscuring a major part of the history of sign language.
About 11 million Americans consider themselves deaf or hard of hearing, according to the Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey, and Black people make up nearly 8 percent of that population. Carolyn McCaskill, founding director of the Center for Black Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University, a private university in Washington for the deaf and hard of hearing, estimates that about 50 percent of deaf Black people use Black ASL.
Now, young Black signers are celebrating the language on social media, exposing millions to the history of a dialect preserved by its users and enriched by their lived experiences.
Nuances of Black ASL
Users of Black ASL are often confronted with the assumption that their language is a lesser version of contemporary ASL, but several scholars say that Black ASL is actually more aligned with early American Sign Language, which was influenced by French sign language.
“Here you have a Black dialect developed in the most oppressive conditions that somehow, in many respects, wound up to be more standard than the white counterpart,” said Robert Bayley, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Davis.
As white deaf schools in the 1870s and 1880s moved toward oralism — which places less emphasis on signing and more emphasis on teaching deaf students to speak and lip-read — Black signers better retained the standards of American Sign Language, and some white sign language instructors ended up moving to Black deaf schools.
According to Ceil Lucas, a sociolinguist and professor emerita at Gallaudet University, many white deaf schools were indifferent to Black deaf students’ education.
“The attitude was, ‘We don’t care about Black kids,’” she said. “‘We don’t care whether they get oralism or not — they can do what they want.’ And so these children benefited by having white deaf teachers in the classroom.”
Some Black signers also tend to use a larger signing space and emote to a greater degree when signing when compared with white signers. Over time, Black ASL has also incorporated African-American English terms. For example, the Black ASL sign for “tight” meaning “cool,” which comes from Texas, is not the same as the conceptual sign for “tight,” meaning snug or form-fitting. There are also some signs for everyday words like “bathroom,” “towel” and “chicken” that are completely different in ASL and Black ASL, depending on where a signer lives or grew up.
The same way Black hearing people adjust how they speak “to meet the needs” of their white counterparts, Black ASL users employ a similar mechanism depending on their environment, according to Joseph Hill, an associate professor at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
As one of the first Black students to attend the Alabama School for the Deaf, Dr. McCaskill said code switching allowed her to fit in with white students, while also preserving her Black ASL style.
“We kept our natural way of communicating to the point where many of us code-switched unconsciously,” she said.
Ms. Smith said she noticed that others communicated differently from her around middle school, when she attended a school that primarily consisted of hearing students.
“I started to sign like other deaf students that don’t have deaf family,” said Ms. Smith, whose family has had deaf relatives in four of the last five generations. “I became good friends with them and signed like how they signed so they could feel comfortable.”
Remarking on how her relatives sign — her grandfather Jake Smith Jr. and her great-grandparents Jake Smith Sr. and Mattie Smith have all been featured on her TikTok — Ms. Smith notes that they still tend to use signs they learned growing up.
Generational differences often emerge when Ms. Smith’s older relatives try to communicate with her friends or when they need help communicating at doctor’s appointments, she said, exemplifying how Black ASL has evolved over generations.
Much like any Black experience, Black deaf people’s experiences with Black ASL vary from person to person, and seldom neatly fit into what others expect it to be.
A language born of oppression
Similar to much of Black American history, Black ASL grew out of the immoral seeds of racial segregation.
One of the most comprehensive looks into the language comes from the Black ASL Project, a six-year research study started in 2007 that draws on interviews with about 100 subjects across six Southern states, with findings compiled in “The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL.” (Dr. McCaskill, Dr. Hill, Dr. Bayley and Dr. Lucas are authors.)
The project found that segregation in the South played a large role in Black ASL’s development.
Schools for Black deaf children in the United States began to emerge after the Civil War, according to the team’s study, with 17 states and the District of Columbia having Black deaf institutions or departments. The first U.S. school for the deaf, which later came to be known as the American School for the Deaf, opened in 1817 in Hartford, Conn., and did not initially accept Black students.
Separation led to Black deaf schools’ differing immensely from their white counterparts. White schools tended to focus on an oral method of learning and provide an academic-based curriculum, while Black schools emphasized signing and offered vocational training.
“There were no expectations for Black deaf children to be prepared for college or even continue their education,” said Dr. McCaskill, who started to lose her hearing around age 5 and attended the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind in Talladega, Ala.
In 1952, Louise B. Miller, joined by other Washington parents, sued the District of Columbia’s Board of Education for not permitting Black deaf children at the Kendall School, the city’s only school for the deaf.
The court ruled in Ms. Miller’s favor under the precedent that states could not provide educational institutions within their state for one race and not the other. Black students were permitted to attend the Kendall School in 1952, with classes becoming fully integrated in 1954 after the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education.
Desegregation wasn’t immediate in the South, however, as most schools resisted racial integration until threatened with the loss of federal funding. In Louisiana, the state’s white and Black deaf schools delayed integration until 1978.
In 1968, Dr. McCaskill became a part of the first integrated class at the Alabama School for the Deaf. As a teenager in a newly integrated class, she had a daunting realization: She couldn’t understand her white teachers.
“Even though they were signing, I didn’t understand,” she said. “And I didn’t understand why I didn’t understand.”
A new generation takes ownership
With the pandemic forcing many to flock to virtual social spaces, Isidore Niyongabo, president of National Black Deaf Advocates, said he had seen online interaction grow within his organization and across the Black deaf community as a whole.
“We are starting to see an uptick with the recognition of the Black deaf culture within America,” Mr. Niyongabo said, adding that he expected it would “continue spreading throughout the world.”
Vlogs and online discussion panels — for millions, staples of pandemic life — have helped foster a more tight-knit community, he said.
Ms. Smith said she could see herself working with other Black deaf creators online to lift up the stories of Black deaf people, contributing to the recent explosion of Black ASL content that, among other things, has experts optimistic about the future of Black ASL and its preservation.
“History is important,” she says in one video. “Am I trying to divide the language between ASL and BASL? No. I just carried the history.”
Particularly on social media, younger Black deaf generations have grown more outspoken about Black ASL, proudly claiming it as a part of their culture and their identity, Dr. McCaskill said.
“Historically, so much has been taken away from us, and they’re finally feeling that ‘this is ours,’” she said. “‘This is mine. I own something.’”