Three Strikes, You’re Out: Audism in Black communities

These Audism and d/Deaf definitions that will be used frequently in my article. *It is important to note that lowercase deaf and hard of hearing definition are strikingly similar. Hard of hearing people are actually deaf people regardless of their mode of communication in my perspective.*

The term audism was first coined by Tom Humphries in his 1977 doctoral dissertation titled “Communicating Across Cultures (Deaf-Hearing) and Language Learning.” In it, Humphries defines it as, “The notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or to behave in the manner of one who hears.”

Excerpt from “The Difference Between d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing” written by Gemma Matheson.

Lowercase deaf means simply refers to the medical condition of having hearing loss. People who identify as deaf with a lowercase d often don’t have a strong connection to the Deaf community and most likely do not use sign language, preferring to communicate orally”.

Uppercase Deaf means a cultural identity for people with hearing loss who share a common culture and have a shared sign language.

Hard of hearing is a widely-accepted term to describe someone with mild to moderate hearing loss. A person who is hard of hearing often does not use sign language as their first or preferred language. This may be due to them never having the opportunity to learn a sign language or preferring not to”.

**Within Deaf communities, d/Deaf and hard of hearing definition terms remain controversial issues that divide Deaf people of various racial backgrounds whether coming from Deaf families or hearing families depending on their earlier exposure to Deaf Culture or not. d/Deaf definitions are applicable within Black communities in terms of deciding to stigmatize Black Deaf people depending on their mode of communication choice.**

Here are these two questions I posed for readers: why is Deafness disability that stands apart from all disabilities that led to the third societal strike for Black Deaf people that excluded them from becoming active members in Black communities? How does audism distinguish itself from ableism?

Black Lives Matter Movement is firmly woven into America’s fabric since last summer due to its frequently state-sanctioned lynchings of Black people that occur during either in the broad daylight or in the silence of night. The Louisville Police Department didn’t make a single arrest of one of Breonna Taylor’s killers to this day. I particularly called white Deaf people out to fully acknowledge their white Deaf privilege and their active/passive roles of perpetuating racism in Deaf community in my very first Dear White Deaf People article on my White Deaf Privilege blog. The truth is racism in Deaf community is just one of half of Black Deaf people’s struggles. Second half of Black Deaf people’s struggles is because of the continuous existence of audism in Black community. Audism comes in the form of systemic discrimination based on negative bias and prejudices toward Deaf people such as their negative perception of Deafness disability, continually mocking American Sign Language and any signed language then trivializing all signed languages to a set of so-called-gang-affiliated hand signs. Under both society and black communities’ eyes, Black Deaf signers are inferior to Black speakers.

Racism and Audism is like a Yin/Yang that is an inseparable tag-team entity that continually double oppresses Black Deaf people in both Black and Deaf communities. Now, it’s the crucial time to urge Black people to foster their communities to become inclusive for Black Deaf people to find safe havens in Black communities from their constant battles against racism in Deaf communities. I have been reminded of audism that impacts my societal status as Black Deaf male because my deafness disability is different from all disabilities that further lowering my societal rank in existing racial, social hierarchies in America including Black communities during my participation for privilege walk activity for Urban Poverty class in Rochester Institute of Technology.

My former professor informed the class that we will be doing a privileged walk activity to inspire a conversation about our privileges in society for next class session. When this day came, I hurriedly walked to my Urban Poverty class while texting my interpreters that I will be late because I’m not a morning person. Finally, I arrived at my class on the nick of time when my professor already conducted a privileged walk activity. I spotted the students who already stood a few feet apart in the line and my professor immediately told me that I will be standing at the back of the classroom. I walked to my front desk to place my backpack at which is where I usually sit with my ASL interpreters then walked back toward my designated space. At that moment, my designated space confirmed what I’ve long suspected about my social position within the social, racial hierarchy in America. My professor was a Black woman and she outright knew my assigned status as a Black, Deaf male is at the bottom of the totem pole in America especially Black communities because of audism.

My former professor’s privileged walk activity led me to recall an exact phrase from an introduction page in “Black and Deaf in America: Are We That Different” book that was being written by Dr. McCay Vernon.

He wrote that, “Being both Black and Deaf is in many ways a “double whammy” because of society’s abrogation of each of these two minorities. When the conditions of Blackness and deafness are combined in one person, the individual effects of prejudice, discrimination, and negative self-image are compounded exponentially”.

Furthermore, this privileged walk activity has confirmed my years-long suspicions about my less privileged position that being Black, Deaf male does carry three societal strikes. First societal strike is being Black given its well-documented racist history of criminalized Black bodies that includes enslavement, state-sanctioned lynchings, wrongful imprisonments come with presumption of guilt that inflicts on Black bodies that are still happening to this today. Second societal strike is being Black person with a disability given its history of eugenics in order to impose a justification to carry out inhumane crimes against Black people with disabilities such as legal sterilization, castration, exclusion from becoming an active member of society overall. Junius Wilson was one of the first Black Deaf victims to be castrated in the early 1900s. Third societal strikes come with severe consequences such as infantilization, loss of kinship/family ties, loss of ancestral knowledge, and loss of a sense of community. The historical consequences of the third societal strike will be elaborated in detail in the next few paragraphs after the history of Black Deaf people’s existence since America’s founding.

Historically, Deafness is one of the several common disabilities that have existed in Black communities as white counterparts. Here are these several excerpts to take a look at our Black Deaf history regarding enslavement in Fighting in the Shadows: The Untold Story of Deaf People in the Civil War book. The brief historical documents of Black Deaf People can be founded in the Deaf Slave: An Invisible World section.

Deaf slaves had been brought to the American colonies as early as the eighteenth century. In the South-Carolina Gazette of June 29, 1764, one slave trader wrote, “Negroes have sold here at very exorbitant [sic] prices all past Summer & even down to this time. I have transmitted a Sale of a parcel of Men, refuse, aged, half blind & one dumb & deaf which made an average of £34 Sterling ($3,100).” “African American slave family or families posed in front of a wooden house on the plantation of Dr. William F. Gaines, Hanover County,Virginia. Deaf slaves often sold for less than hearing slaves. In 1820, in Lincoln County, Kentucky, an estate inventory of William Bryan listed a “deaf and Dumb negro man named Lew” for $200. Two hearing men sold for $550 and $600 and a hearing boy for $400. One unique report came from Reverend George W. Moore, who observed a catechism class during a visit to a plantation near Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1834.” (Lang 2017, p.2)

In the “Continuation of Slavery: The Experience of Disabled Slaves During Emancipation”, Dr. Downs has noticed that during the Reconstruction era, dominant society was designed to grant able-bodied privileges for former enslaved people who were able to find employment and exercise their voting rights in order to rebuild their lives as free Black people for the first time in their lives. The rest of former enslaved people with disabilities, especially Black Deaf people were left behind. Ironically, Black Deaf people were also able-bodied people so they would have benefited from having able-bodied privileges to rebuild their lives as hearing counterparts. However, the lack of oral and auditory abilities is the reason why they weren’t able to leave enslavers’ plantations.

These excerpts and scholarly articles clearly show that Black Deaf people have been also stolen from the shores of Africa and were being enslaved along Black people. Black Deaf people’s contribution in building America was deliberately omitted from American history including Black history because their stories weren’t being recorded due to their communication barriers.

We have to understand the overall picture of how audism has been problematic throughout the history of the world before the existence of America.

Deafness disability carries a centuries-old negative connotation starting with two prominent Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Socrates. In 355 to 360 B.C, Aristotle claimed that “those who are born deaf all become senseless and incapable of reason. Socrates reinforced Aristotles’ previous claims that “Deaf people are incapable of language and ideas.” Audism has already existed long before their times. Aristotle and Socrates probably were the first Greek philosophers who publicly discussed audism without inventing an official term of it until Tom Humphries who coined audism in his doctoral dissertation in 1977. Despite enough linguistic research that proves that sign language is an actual language. Alexander Graham Bell’s eugenics ideologies of how to “cure” deafness and attempting to replace sign language for oral and speech reading skills are still widely accepted throughout the world.

For instance, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonders are one of world-renowned Black blind musicians who have musical gifts that require their talented voice and hearing ability to create countless hit songs and albums throughout their careers. They may not be able to use everything visually, but they can “see” everything through their auditory abilities. Despite Ray Charles and Stevie Wonders’ visual impairments, they are still treated as equal as able-bodied people given their celebrity statuses because they already have oral and auditory abilities which satisfy American society’s audism expectations.

I’ve been analyzing how audism impacts Black Deaf people in my “Racial disparities in American Sign Language interpreting” for my sociology senior research in 2018. I found an important excerpt that was found in a scholarly article said “Black families tend to have less enthusiasm for ASL because they do not view ASL as a language and feel stigmatized by having a “handicapped” child. The lack of enthusiasm stems from ASL being visible, which makes the handicap more noticeable” (Anderson, 1992). This excerpt indicated that Black families indeed have Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome which is an intergenerational trauma as the result of being enslaved for several centuries. One of the symptoms of having the PTSS is vacant esteem. Vacant esteem would have unconsciously shaped their perspective of deafness and sign language that perceived negatively. “Vacant esteem is the state of believing oneself to have little or no worth, exacerbated by similar pronouncements of inferiority from the personal sphere and larger society. Vacant esteem is the net result of three spheres of influence — society, community, and family. Society influences us through its institutions, laws, policies, and media”(Degruy, 2017, p.108).

When Black family first learned their Deaf child have deafness disability so learning sign language would be a better option, but at the same time, most likely Black family will be opting for oral and speechreading as a mode of communication in order to lessen stigmatization of having Deaf child in racist society especially in Black communities. “When these influences all promote a disparaging and limiting identity to which we believe we are confined, vacant esteem can be the result. It is important to note that vacant esteem is a belief about one’s worth, not a measure of one’s actual worth.” (Degruy, 2017, p.108) Black families’ vacant esteem impacted their perspective on Deaf children who unsuccessfully develops their vocal and speechreading that unfortunately led to an exclusion from Black families/communities that has occurred throughout Black Deaf history that dated back to late 19th century starting with Douglas Craig.

First instance, In The History of Gallaudet University: 150 years of a Deaf American Institution, Douglas Craig was found being homeless in Washington, D.C during wintertime by late Senator Aaron Harrison Craig. He indicated that he did not know his name and his family’s whereabouts then Senator Craig took him to Gallaudet University in 1870. Despite Gallaudet University not accepting Black Deaf students for undergraduate studies, however, E.M, Gallaudet, Gallaudet University President could not reject Senator Craig for bringing a homeless Black Deaf child to him. He wouldn’t want to experience a receiving end of political ramifications if he resisted Senator Craig. So, Dr. Edward Miner Gallaudet gave this former homeless Black Deaf child his name to Douglass which is named after Frederick Douglass and Senator Craig. That’s the only time in Gallaudet University’s history to allow Black Deaf child to be on predominately white deaf’s campus, however, he wasn’t allowed to be educated as white deaf peers given the times they lived in. It is clear that his own family abandoned him in the street of Washington, DC. He lived out at the Gallaudet Campus for the remainder of his life as a handyman. He was being honored as a Gallaudet University legend by the Gallaudet community.

Second instance, In Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson, I previously mentioned earlier that Junius Wilson was one of the first Black Deaf victims to be castrated. Prior to his wrongful imprisonment at the State Hospital for the Colored Insane in Goldsboro, North Carolina, he was expelled from North Carolina School for the Colored Deaf and Blind for sneaking away from his teacher and classmates at Negro State Fair until he found his way back to his group in 1924. That was his first and last minor violation he had ever done when he was a student. When he returned to his hometown in Castle Hayne, NC and his extended family weren’t giving him a warm welcome home. “His great uncle summarized, “You couldn’t tell him nothing because he couldn’t hear where you say.” As a cousin revealed later, “Most people kind of avoided him because they couldn’t communicate. They didn’t talk to him” (Burch & Joyner 2007, p.32–34). Arthur Smith Jr, his “extended” uncle maliciously accused him of attempting to rape his aunt. Decades later, his younger family relatives finally confessed to Burch and Joyner that his uncle just wanted to get rid of him because no one knows or in an attempt to learn sign language to communicate with Junius.

Third instance, In “Sounds Like Home: Growing Up Black and Deaf in the South”, Mary Herring Wright, Black Deaf woman who became Deaf when she was nine year old. She wrote in her autobiography to describe the tension relationship between Black and Black Deaf community, “Deaf people are very distrustful of hearing people. They’re always suspicious that they’re being talked about or made fun of for not being able to hear and talk” (Wright, 1999, p.118). In this context, her story was set in the 1920s when Jim Crow was the law of the land. She was speaking of Black Deaf people and their audism experiences of that time.

Lastly, In God Knows His Name: The Story of John Doe №24, John Doe was an illiterate Black Deaf teenager who was homeless at Jacksonville IL. He was found by Jacksonville police officers in an abandoned alley on October 11, 1945. He informed officers that he did not know his name nor know sign language through gestures. Jacksonville police officers did not know what to do even with him and a local court placed him in a mental institution for the rest of his life. It is to be believed that his family abandoned him because he did not know his family whereabouts.

These historical instances I previously outlined earlier show that Black families have been socially stigmatized Black Deaf people due to their lack of ability to master speechreading, oral, and auditory abilities. Indeed, not all Black Deaf people are being socially stigmatized because some of them can demonstrate superb speechreading and oral abilities that will reduce their three societal strike down to two societal strikes. Whereas some Black Deaf people who cannot or naturally master speech reading and oral abilities are relegated to the lowest rank in Black communities hence societal third strike that is befall on them.

In addition, my Racial disparities in American Sign Language interpreting research shows that none of Historically Black Colleges and Universities offer American sign language and Deaf culture programs that would have promoted Deaf awareness in Black communities. HBCUs is one of the main components of Black Culture, but without including critical Deaf culture programs and audism will be continually festering that will be affecting Black Deaf people. Black people are well-known for their strong religious beliefs that married into their activism that effectively shaped America through the Civil Right and Black Power movements such as famous leaders, Dr. King and Malcolm X, they were religious leaders in respective religions. Black churches are the heart of Black culture where they learn their structural organizing, leadership, and solidarity. Black churches are also supporting Black families through the economic, social, and racial hardships. “Black Americans (83%) are more likely to say they believe in God with absolute certainty than whites (61%) and Latinos (59%)”(Masci, 2018). Then Black families should know and heed this biblical verse Leviticus 19:14 “You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.”

My article shows that throughout the Black Deaf history that audism has been ingrained into Black communities like racism have been ingrained into American society. Black Deaf people don’t deserve to be repudiated for using sign language that happens to be feeling so natural to us to communicate as Black people don’t deserve to be lynched for the color of our skins which is supposed to be a blessing. Otherwise, this audism issue will be driving both Black and Black Deaf communities further apart if audism isn’t being fully addressed. It is a critical time for Black people to acknowledge and fully address audism in Black communities. If you want to educate yourself about Black Deaf culture and history of Black Deaf people in order to empower Black Deaf people that can be found under this resource below. The resources that I cultivated for the last decade are the reason why I’m able to write this much-needed piece to finally discuss audism in Black communities for the first time since I first got “Black and Deaf in America: Are We that Different” book.

Resources

Anderson, R. P. (1992). Empowerment and Black Deaf Persons: Conference Proceedings — Black, Deaf and Mentally Ill: Triple Jeopardy.

Armstrong, D. (2014). The history of Gallaudet University: 150 years of a deaf American institution. Washington, DC, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Bakke, D. (2000). God knows his name: The true story of John Doe no. 24. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Berke, J. (2020, April 22). Segregation in Deaf Schools. Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://www.verywellhealth.com/deaf-history-segregation-deaf-schools-1046550

Berke, J. (2020, May 02). How an Audist Attitude Negatively Affects Deaf People. Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://www.verywellhealth.com/deaf-culture-audism-1046267

DEGRUY, J. (2017). POST TRAUMATIC SLAVE SYNDROME: America’s legacy of enduring injury and healing. revised edition. Place of publication not identified: JOY DEGRUY PUBLICATIONS.

Burch, S., & Joyner, H. (2007). Unspeakable: The story of Junius Wilson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

DawnSignPress. (2020, August 22). Watch Audism Unveiled Online: Vimeo On Demand. Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://vimeo.com/ondemand/audismunveiled

Downs, J. (n.d.). The Continuation of Slavery: The Experience of Disabled Slaves during Emancipation. Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/112/112

Hairston, E., & Smith, L. (1983). Black and Deaf in America: Are We that Different by Ernest Hairston. Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/658030.Black_and_Deaf_in_America

Kish, M. (n.d.). Stereotypes and Misconceptions About Deaf People. Retrieved August 23, 2020, from http://deafeducationworldwide.weebly.com/stereotypes-and-misconceptions-about-deaf-people.html

Lang, H. (2017). Fighting in the shadows: Untold stories of deaf people in the Civil War. Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://www.amazon.com/Fighting-Shadows-Untold-Stories-People/dp/1563686805

Masci, D. (2020, August 18). 5 facts about blacks and religion in America. Retrieved August 26, 2020, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/02/07/5-facts-about-the-religious-lives-of-african-americans/

Matheson, G. (n.d.). The Difference Between d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Retrieved August 25, 2020, from https://blog.ai-media.tv/blog/the-difference-between-deaf-and-hard-of-hearing

McCaskill, C., Lucas, C., Bayley, R., & Hill, J. (2011). The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL. Retrieved August 23, 2020, from http://gupress.gallaudet.edu/the-hidden-treasure-of-black-asl.html

P. (2008). CRATYLUS. Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1616/1616-h/1616-h.htm

Player, D. (2020, May 27). Dear White Deaf People — White Deaf Privilege. Retrieved August 26, 2020, from https://whitedeafprivilege.wordpress.com/

Player, D. (n.d.). Racial disparities in American Sign Language Interpreting. Retrieved August 26, 2020, from https://docs.google.com/document/d/1E6CMHRIPfd9EaymrXIn3hMoFLw_tKhPPYzWUw0opNu0/edit?usp=sharing

SIGNING BLACK in AMERICA. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2020, from https://www.talkingblackinamerica.org/signing-black-in-america/

Timeline: History of the Deaf Community. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2020, from http://ead.ee/foreign_deaf_history

Wright, M. H. (2019). Sounds Like Home: Growing up Black and Deaf in the South. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Sharing my Black Deaf perspective on racism and audism issues. RIT Alumni ’19 | University of New Mexico Graduate Student

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store