‘We Have 14 Black Deaf Americans With Ph.D.s—14’

By B.R.J. O’Donnell

In many ways, Gallaudet University looks like any other liberal-arts college in America: Brick buildings and leafy walkways are abundant on its campus in Washington, D.C. But at Gallaudet, American Sign Language (ASL) is the lingua franca, and creating space for deaf culture a main priority. Walking to class, students sign in rapid-fire bursts of kinetic language.

Franklin Jones Jr. is one of those students. Though he is thriving now—having gotten his undergraduate degree and now attending graduate school at the university—his path has been a difficult one. In fact, Franklin wasn’t sure college was for him at all. But Dr. Carolyn McCaskill, a professor of deaf studies at Gallaudet who researches the history and structure of black ASL, worked with Franklin to make sure he reached graduation. Not only did he do that, but he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in ASL, linguistics, and deaf studies, and he was selected to deliver remarks at his graduation ceremony.

For The Atlantic‘s series on mentorship, “On The Shoulders Of Giants,” I spoke with Jones Jr. and McCaskill about their bond, the experience of being black and deaf in America, and how mentorship can promote inclusion.


B.R.J. O’Donnell: Can you talk about what black ASL is particularly well-suited to capturing and communicating?

Carolyn McCaskill: You know how some people may talk loud? I sign loud. So that’s one of the features—a larger signing space. Two-handed signing is also one of the features. In mainstream ASL, someone might just sign with one hand, but in black ASL, two-handed signs are also okay. And then there is repetition. If you sign, “I’m getting out of here,” you will sign it not just once, but twice—you might even sign it three times, for emphasis and also for clarification purposes. So we incorporate our culture from black English in our signing.

O’Donnell: How does black ASL strengthen the bond you two share?

McCaskill: Franklin and I would often have these conversations about black ASL and its unique features. It was really interesting learning about his family dynamic—he’s from a deaf family—in terms of their language use. We have to preserve our history, we have to preserve our language, and we have to disseminate that information, because there is a rich history that we want the wider public to know of. It’s something that we are proud of.

O’Donnell: Franklin, when did you first meet Dr. McCaskill?

Franklin Jones Jr.: In my first year at Gallaudet, I took Dr. McCaskill’s deaf-studies class. And then I took another class with her called “Dynamics of Oppression.” And that really broadened my understanding of everything that I’ve gone through, and everything that she’s gone through, as well as how much she has contributed to our community. Up until that point I’d never had a deaf black teacher in my life. And the fact that we had a black deaf woman, a researcher, studying black ASL, who has a doctorate degree teaching this class—that really motivated me.

O’Donnell: …read more

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