Carolyn McCaskill remembers exactly when she discovered that she
couldn’t understand white people. It was 1968, she was 15 years old, and
she and nine other deaf black students had just enrolled in an
integrated school for the deaf in Talledega, Alabama. The teacher’s quicksilver hand movements looked little like the sign
language McCaskill had grown up using at home with her two deaf siblings
and had practiced at the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind,
just a few miles away.
What intrigues McCaskill and other experts in deaf culture today is the
degree to which distinct signing systems — one for whites and another
for blacks — evolved and continue to coexist today. This article discusses some of the differences in sign language as used in the U.S. based on race.