Dr. Ceil Lucas and Dr. Carolyn McCaskill: “Black ASL: A Historical and Linguistic Overview”

February 28, 2013

This presentation will provide an overview of a historical and linguistic project on Black ASL focusing on school history, generational differences, and language differences. Ninety-six Deaf African-American informants in two age groups (over 55 and under 35) were interviewed in 6 of the 17 states where schools were racially segregated. We analyzed  language patterns in Black ASL, for example, 2-handed signs, role-shifting, and the influence of African American English (AAE). We also report on the informants’ perceptions of language use which help explain how some Black signs were created, remained or disappeared over time. This project is funded by National Science Foundation.

Sponsored by the Spencer Foundation and the National Science Foundation, the Black ASL project began in 2007 with two goals:  1) to determine if specific linguistic features could be identified to characterize the signing of the Black Deaf community as a distinct variety of American Sign Language (ASL), and  2) to describe the socio-historical reality that would make the emergence of this variety possible.

Formal education of deaf children began in the United States with the founding of the American School for the Deaf in 1817 and schools for deaf children were never formally segregated in the North. Education was not allowed for Black deaf children in the South until 1869, when the first school was opened in Raleigh, North Carolina. Sixteen other southern states and the District of Columbia established schools for Black deaf children, the last one being Louisiana in 1938. Most resisted the integration mandated by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, finally allowing desegregation in the mid-1960s, with Louisiana desegregating in 1978. This socio-historical reality allowed for the emergence of a distinct variety of ASL.

The analysis identified a number of linguistic features that distinguish this variety and also shows that, as a result of integration and mainstreaming, the variety is changing. One striking finding is that the Black signers, both young and old,  consistently use more traditional and standardized forms of signs, directly challenging perceptions that Black signing is somehow ” inferior”.


Carolyn McCaskill, attended the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf in Talladega and was in the first integrated class in 1968 at the Alabama School for the Deaf. She received her MA degree in Counseling with the Deaf, BA in Psychology and Ph.D in Administration and Supervision from Gallaudet University. She is currently an Associate Professor in the ASL & Deaf Studies Department at Gallaudet University since 1996. Carolyn has conducted numerous seminars and workshops related to Black Deaf people.

Ceil Lucas. Ph.D. was raised in Guatemala City and Rome, Italy. She is Professor of Linguistics at Gallaudet University, where she has taught since 1982. She is a sociolinguist with broad interests in the structure and use of sign languages. She has co-authored and edited many articles and books, includingThe Linguistics of American Sign Language, 5th ed. (with Clayton Valli, Kristin Mulrooney, and Miako Villanueva, 2010 ).

A link to the video recorded lecture can be found here.