Signing Black in America: The Story of Black American Sign Language

Signing Black in America

Image courtesy of Danica Cullinan. Kasiem Walters performing "A Change is Gonna Come" in dance & ASL at open mic ASL night in Washington, D.C.

Feb. 5, 2020 – A documentary about Black ASL, the unique dialect of American Sign Language (ASL) that developed within historically segregated African American Deaf communities, was produced through a non-profit at NC State University and will be screened throughout North Carolina. 

“Signing Black in America” was produced by NC State’s Language & Life Project (LLP), a non-profit that focuses on research, education and outreach programs related to language. “Signing Black in America” is the first episode of a four-part miniseries that follows the feature-length 2017 documentary “Talking Black in America.”

“Signing Black in America” highlights the history and development of Black ASL, explores relevant topics such as code switching, interpreting and language change, and celebrates the important role that Black ASL plays in the lives of its users. 

Black ASL today conveys an identity and sense of belonging that mirrors spoken language varieties of the African American hearing community. Different uses of space, hand use, directional movement and facial expression are ways that Black ASL distinguishes itself as a vibrant dialect of American Sign Language. The African American Deaf community is now embracing their unique variety as a symbol of solidarity and a vital part of their identity.

“It is important that we recognize and celebrate the diverse Deaf communities and the variations within American Sign Language,” said Jan Withers, Director of NCDHHS’ Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. “Understanding and appreciating Black ASL helps to create an inclusive environment.” 

For the episode, the producers relied on the expertise and guidance of associate producers Carolyn McCaskill, Ceil Lucas and Joseph Hill – authorities on Black ASL and co-authors of “The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL.” Their commentary is featured in the documentary alongside perspectives from those familiar with Black ASL, such as interpreters, educators and performers. 

Hill will host several local screenings of “Signing Black in America” during February: 

•    11 a.m., Feb. 22 at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte 
•    5:30 p.m., Feb. 22 at UNC-Greensboro 
•    4 p.m., Feb. 23 at NC State University (Caldwell G107) in Raleigh
•    6 p.m., Feb. 24 at NC State University (DH Hill Library, Erdahl Cloyd Theater) in Raleigh 

ASL interpreters will be provided at all showings. The film is signed/subtitled and voiced. For updates on showings, visit the DSDHH Facebook page.