The Story Behind Black American Sign Language

The well-deserved attention of Black American Sign Language (BASL) today was not gained until TikToker Nakia Smith shed light on the way she communicates in her everyday life. Her signature video opening of rubbing lotion on her hands before she tells her stories through BASL caught the eyes of viewers and as more people watched, the history of BASL was finally being told.

Despite not gaining attention until recent years, BASL dates all the way back to times of segregation. There was a large deaf population of Black youths that did not have access to sign language education due to slavery and segregation. As a result, they had to make a society of their own and their own means of living. Rather than feeling defeated and waiting for better days to come, the black community came together to open the first school for Black deaf children in the 1850s. It was then that Black American Sign Language was born.

Just like any language, BASL has its own unique characteristics and ways of communicating. There is often a misconception that Black American Sign Language is just like American Sign Language or it’s the dialed down version. Some even call it “street language.” Sign language is not a universal language. In fact, there are over 200 sign languages around the world. BASL holds its own in the sign language world with its own unique flavor and spice, as Nakia Smith would say. BASL holds emotion and when one speaks this language, it is an art form and they are representing African American members of the deaf community. It is more than a “street language.”

man holding up sign language for letter V Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

The appreciation of the culture is shown in BASL and it is important to note the differences between the languages and educate yourself on the history and significance of it. BASL is loud and expressive, it has rhythm and style. BASL holds elements of Black culture, such as religious practice and words normally used in Black communities.

In a video that Nakia Smith made with her grandfather, she noted some differences between BASL and ASL. Among these were signs for relieved, embarrassed and even “I have a car.” Differences also include BASL signing with two hands, whereas ASL is more with one hand. There are differences among individual words, such as the signs for “Christmas” and “hurt.” To see visual representations of these differences, you can watch Smith’s video.

As Black History Month continues, I encourage you to continue to educate yourselves and show appreciation for the Black culture and history. People like Nakia Smith are pivotal people in the journey of giving a voice to the Black community, more specifically the Black deaf community. If you want to learn more about this language, you can watch Smith’s videos or watch films on the language, such as Signing Black in America. As well as find YouTube videos on simple BASL concepts.

BASL is just one of the many remarkable creations of the Black community. As we grow as a society, we must continue to shed light on these aspects of their culture. Black History Month is a time to honor those of the community but, should be celebrated way beyond just the month of February.

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