FHS: Black History and American Sign Language


FAIRBORN —Millions of people who watched the Super Bowl last week undoubtedly saw Warren “Wawa” Snipe, who brought the pre-game National Anthem and “America the Beautiful” to life in American Sign Language. Snipe’s performance, complementing the duet of Eric Church and Jazmine Sullivan, won the hearts of viewers across the country with the emotion and enthusiasm he put into his work. Snipe is a black deaf performer, whose work not only contributes to making America’s songs accessible for the deaf community, but redefines what black deaf artists are capable of.

Among those Super Bowl viewers was the American Sign Language class of Michelle Lee, who teaches ASL at Fairborn High School. Lee categorized Snipe’s performance as “history in real time,” and she has used his work and the work of others to explore African Americans’ experience of deaf culture during Black History Month.

Black American Sign Language is a dialect of American Sign Language (ASL) used most commonly by deaf African Americans in the United States. Black ASL is extremely expressive, “paints pictures,” and “brings another layer and another flavor to the notion of Black communication,” according to the Language and Life Project.

Black ASL was influenced by the segregation of schools and black communities in the 1950s, when forms of communication rose naturally among those groups.

“Previously, anyone of color who was learning sign language in their community, and their community is primarily black, had a certain way of signing as opposed to what was taught with American Sign Language education,” Lee said. “Black American Sign Language was suppressed and neglected up until the past few decades.”

Despite being suppressed in favor of traditional ASL, the dialect has experienced a revival in both academic and cultural settings in recent years.

Lee’s students have been doing research and group projects on the lives of famous or influential black deaf persons. The students will present their posters to their classmates and then hang them around the school. Lee teaches both virtual and in-person classes, but her online students have been able to use Google Slides and Google Meet to present to their in-person peers.

In one-on-one sessions, Lee says that “tons” of her students have been eager to learn about the language.

“They tell me, ‘Wow I never even knew that this subculture existed,’” she added.

Lee says combining the experience of both the deaf community and black history month is an opportunity to show students how they can be advocates in their community.

“First of all, we can see how far we’ve come, not only with black history, but with deaf culture,” she said. “100 years ago people would have their hands smacked if they tried to use sign language. People who were deaf were often forced to speak.

“Pairing that, since we’ve been celebrating Black History Month, has an impact on someone, so history doesn’t repeat itself.”

By London Bishop

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Reach London Bishop at 937-502-4532 or follow @LBishopFDH on Twitter.

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