This 22-Year-Old TikToker Has Gone Viral For Putting The Culture On To Black American Sign Language
Black people were forced to develop their own, distinct sign language because of segregation.
December 01, 2020 at 3:43 pm
The internet has quickly fallen in love with 22-year-old Nakia Smith who went viral thanks to her informative videos about Black American Sign Language.
Smith comes from a four-generation family of deaf people and has decided to use her experience to create dozens of videos of conversations with her great grandparents that have since racked up millions of views on TikTok.
Her videos have led to an increased interest in how Black people sign and the differences found in the language primarily used in Black deaf communities.
In a video for Netflix, Smith explained that Black American Sign Language, a dialect of American Sign Language, was developed in the 1800s because schools for the deaf were segregated.
Smith noted that the first American school for the deaf, which was built in 1817, didn't admit Black people until 1952. This segregation from the white deaf community forced Black people to come up with their own way of communicating.
"The biggest difference between BASL and ASL is that BASL got seasoning," Smith joked.
With BASL, both hands are used as opposed to ASL which is generally done with only one hand. Like African American Vernacular English (AAVE), there are also certain words that have different cultural connotations.
Words like "Christmas," "curious" and "children" are signed differently in BASL, while certain terms like "bad" and "word" that have different connotations among Black Americans are similarly transferred to BASL.
"I felt like a lot of people didn't know about BASL until my video went viral. They were really curious and wanted to learn more about BASL and history. I told my grandfather that the video went viral and he said, 'Keep it going,'" she said.
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, many people have noticed that during press conferences by governors and state leaders, there is typically a sign language interpreter translating their words. But few knew that for some, even that version of sign language is intelligible.
Carolyn McCaskill, a professor of deaf studies at Gallaudet University, told The Washington Post about how difficult it was for her to attend desegregated schools in the late 1960s because the sign language being used by her teachers was different compared to what was taught at the deaf schools for Black children that she attended.
McCaskill and others have been on the cutting edge of examining how widespread BASL is and its differences from ASL. Her book focuses on the history of Black deaf people in the United States and describes how BASL involves more body language and bigger signs among other differences.
There is no standardized world language for sign language users, with each country using its own version and different regions and populations deploying their own terminology and local lexicon, according to The Alachua County Library.
“Our signing is louder, more expressive. It’s almost poetic,” Teraca Florence, a former president of the Black Deaf Student Union at Gallaudet University, told The Washington Post.