Not Good Enough?

Alison Aubrecht, a wonderful Deaf poet who has a new collection out called Almost, responded to my Deaf Poetry Zero post. In it, I asked why there weren’t any deaf poetry included in any of the popular anthologies. She asked a series of counter-questions. I’d like to respond to the first one here:

“Because the work of Deaf authors isn’t good enough?”

I had to smile, because this too was my first thought.  It’s a question a writer would ask, because the writing life is full of self-doubt. Add to that the doubts inherent in being members of an oppressed people–yes, it’s no surprise that, in our double anxiety, this ugly thought would be the first one to leap out at us. “Maybe we’re just not good enough.”

Our doubts about our own individual work aside, though, it should be clear from reading what our brothers and sisters have written that our literature is a rich, deep one. I have my personal favorites, which include some of Alison’s work, such as the sublime and devastating “The Ghost in Yellowed Photographs” and the hauntingly musical “Hearing-Headed.” There are so many poems I simply adore–they do more for me than mountains of canonical literature can ever hope to do for me. I am brought to tears by Mervin D. Garretson’s “Deaf Again.” I feel my mental health buckle every time I read Linwood Smith’s “Mike.” I feel such an exquisite mixture of joy and pathos when I read Alice Cornelia Jennings’s “A Prayer in Signs.” Mary Toles Peet’s “To a Bride” always puts a smile on my face, and I nod in complete sympathy and understanding reading James Nack’s “The Music of Beauty” or Curtis Robbins’s “Russian Roulette.” Raymond Luczak’s “Learning to Speak, Part I,” Clayton Valli’s “A Dandelion,” Christopher Jon Heuer’s “Visible Scars”–aren’t they and so many others priceless?

When all of these poems are excluded from those big anthologies, I get the message that we aren’t supposed to exist, that we do not belong in the great tapestries those books purport to be reflective of. It’s as if we aren’t even considered part of the audience. But we are here, we exist, and what we value and consider good enough should count.

What’s more, lots of poets are included in those big anthologies not because they’re good or resonate any more with the editors, but because they were “important” or “influential.” One example would be Ezra Pound. LOTS of readers agree that his work is crap. Almost no one can read him–most who do read him do so merely to appear smart. But Pound was an influential figure, and so editors dutifully include his unreadable doggerel.

Now, if a poet can be included not because he was good but because of other reasons, why not include some Deaf poets? Is quality really at issue? It shouldn’t be, because I am confident that we’ve got Deaf poetry of extremely high value, whatever criteria any editors may have. We have formalist work as well as avant garde, we have narrative as well as lyrical, we have identity and protest as well as warm and fuzzy. We have lots to contribute, and they can make room. They can cut down the Ezra Pound section from an unseemly 80 pages to 20 and cut out interchangeable poets, such as choosing between Abbie Huston Evans and Hildegarde Flexner Flanner.

What I am asking for is not a concession on the question of quality, for we don’t need such a concession. We simply matter too much to be so totally excluded. Some estimates have us at almost twenty percent of the total population. If the Library of America, for example, were to follow a strict representational ratio, then no fewer than sixty deaf poets would be in their big American Poetry series! Am I asking for that? No. My own “Deaf American Poetry” has only thirty-five poets. So even if ALL of them were included, it’d still be a population under-represented. Yet I’m not even asking for that. I want the editors to put our work through the most rigorous process, and I’m sure we’d have plenty of Deaf poetry making the final cut. The problem is that we’re not even invited into that process to begin with.

That’s what I’m really asking about.

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Deaf Poetry Zero

In recent years, various groups have called attention to the gross under-representation of women writers and writers of color in literary journals and book reviews. Every time I read about a controversy revolving around the gender or racial imbalance in the literary community, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I am thrilled that someone spoke up. On the other hand, I thinking, “Well, at least they have some representation.”

As a deaf-blind poet and the editor of the anthology Deaf American Poetry, I am constantly reminded that my community has a deeper problem. It’s not that we are under-represented; it’s often that we’re not represented at all.

Take Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, which Helen Vendler criticized for being too inclusive. “No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading.” My response to the anthology? It isn’t inclusive enough. Not one deaf poet is in it, in spite of two renaissances of deaf letters in that century, first during the 1930s and then as part of the Deaf Pride Movement in the 1980s and 1990s. The former produced such classics as Howard L. Terry’s 1929 selected poems volume and Albert Ballin’s 1933 polemic “The Deaf Mute Howls.” The latter enjoyed the publication of Douglass Bullard’s groundbreaking novel Islay (1986) and a profusion of poetry collections (by Felix Kowalewski, Loy E. Golladay, Dorothy Miles, Mervin D. Garretson, Robert F. Panara, to name a few), as well as the golden age of American Sign Language poetry.

David Lehman’s The Oxford Book of American Poetry includes even more poets: 220. Deaf: 0. I’ve looked in every major poetry anthology I could find at the library. Women, African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, and others may be under-represented, but they’re all present, thanks to the modern editor’s sophistication and the fashionable commitment to multiculturalism and diversity. This has not extended to deaf poetry.

I was especially disappointed in Library of America’s sprawling, generous American Poetry series, which has five volumes. Because deaf poetry started in America with the publication of James Nack’s first book in 1827, I dismissed the first volume, which focuses on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The rest, four volumes, covers the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and features no fewer than 382 poets. I did not count Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who had some hearing loss—he was never remotely identified with the deaf community. I did find Lydia Huntley Sigourney, a hearing woman who plays a role in deaf history as Alice Cogswell’s teacher before Thomas H. Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc set up the first American school for the deaf in 1817. She wrote quite a number of poems about deaf people.

I know that the Library of America editors dug deep in the nation’s archives. How could they miss James Nack, who was praised as the new Byron? Or Angeline Fuller Fischer’s The Venture and Other Poems, which poets such as John Greenleaf Whittier admired? Or the most famous deaf poet in the nineteenth century, Laura Redden Searing, who was published in all of the leading magazines and has a town named in her honor?

I was certain I would find Searing in J.D. McClathy’s anthology Poets of the Civil War. She was the first poet to publish a collection devoted to the war, called Idylls of Battle (1864), which Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant praised. Her poem “Belle Missouri” became the official battle song of the Union Missouri regiments. While many of her poems resemble a good number of poems in McClatchy’s anthology, she did write a few unusual ones, such as “My Story,” in which she offers a deaf perspective on the war. Imagine my astonishment when I did not find her in the collection.

I invite you, my readers, to contemplate the question: Why such a complete lack of deaf representation?


By the Book

[The New York Times Book Review is available in Braille and one of eight magazines I get through the National Library Service for the Blind. My favorite feature is “By the Book,” where an author is asked the same set of questions. It is a wonderful way for authors to make book recommendations, and I’ve made some discoveries this way. After reading an hundred of those, I began to wonder how I would respond to the questions if they ever asked me to be the featured author. Since that’s unlikely to happen, I’ve taken the liberty of conducting the interview with myself.]

Q: What are you reading at the moment? Are you a one-book-at-a-time person?

A: I usually read eight or ten books at a time. I alternate between two in the bathroom, have various books for locations scattered throughout my home, and a bunch on my ActiveBraille, for travel. My current crowd includes the Oxford selected Wordsworth, whose work I’m finally enjoying after trying him several times in the past; a biography of the deaf-blind poet Richard Kinney, for research; some Miss Marple stories by Agatha Christie; and Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel “Johnny Got His Gun,” at first for research but now for pleasure. The portrayal of the deaf-blind armless, legless, faceless WWI veteran is problematic in places, but it’s still a breathtaking masterpiece that hasn’t aged one bit.

Every once in a while, I suddenly become a one-book person. I start reading and I cannot stop. Because I’m a slow reader, this means the book would take over my life for a full week or longer. So it’s both a blessing and a tragedy that it doesn’t happen often. Some of the unputdownables have been “Middlemarch,” by George Eliot; Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men”; David Bradley’s “The Chaneysville Incident”; Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth”; and, most recently, James A. Michener mammoth novel “Hawaii,” in eleven Braille volumes.

Q: What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?

A: William Everdell’s “The First Moderns.” Even though I understood nothing of the mathematics and physics discussed in it, I loved the biographical sketches of the artists and thinkers who smashed the nineteenth century into pieces.

Q: If you had to name a favorite poet, who would it be?

A: It’s hard to say because my favorite changes all the time. But I can tell you which poet I am most afraid of re-reading for fear the Braille dots containing his work would seem duller than I remember: John Clare. But at least I first read him in Braille. Many poets I read first in print are no good in Braille. So maybe Clare will be all right.

Q: What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

A: First, there’s the fact there are no shelves. I do have some print books in boxes; they’re for my research projects. Second, among the books I read, whether from the Braille library or downloaded into my devices, there are no surprises. I’m a native Minnesotan, so the mysteries shouldn’t be a surprise.

Q: If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

A: It’s telling that Harlan Lane’s “The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community” is just as relevant as it was when it came out twenty years ago. The audism we signers experience is the same, and the injustices inflicted by the medical industries, including the Food and Drug Administration, especially with respect to cochlear implants, have yet to be addressed.

Q: Did you identify with any characters growing up? Who were your literary heroes?

A: I didn’t really read anything until I was thirteen. I, being a jock, decided to find the biggest book I could get my hands on. That happened to be Ken Follett’s “The Pillars of the Earth.” I enjoyed the costumes and the swords, but never felt any real identification until I read a Raymond Carver story a few years ago. How could he write about me before I was born? I also recognized a lot of myself in Tobias Wolff’s boyhood self as he depicts it in his remarkable memoir, “This Boy’s Life.” But he was no hero, except in that he turned out all right, as I hope I have, too.

Q: Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last time you put down a book without finishing it?

A: As a poet, I am conscious that it’s something of a crime not to like Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson. It’s possible Whitman will work for me someday, but because of formatting—all those dashes, like the two I’m using now—it’s unlikely I’ll ever get into Dickinson. These dashes are just too jarring.

Because reading for me is a huge investment of time, I send books back to the library or delete them all the time after reading a few pages. For research, my patience is greater. The last one I dropped a book I can blame on you. James Patterson, in his recent “By the Book” interview, said Richard Price was the best. I checked the Braille database, and “Lush Life” was the only one by him they had. Nothing happened for me after three chapters.

Q: You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any three writers, living or dead. Who’s coming?

A: Even if an interpreter was provided, it wouldn’t do to invite any nonsigners. It’d be awkward and there would be conflicting table manners. Hearing culture: Talking about bodily functions is forbidden. Deaf culture: Perfectly acceptable to discuss bowel movements while eating what would produce more of these movements. Hearing: Move on to the living room after the meal. Deaf: Stay in the kitchen until 3 a.m.

One hearing person I would invite is Paul Hostovsky, one of my favorite poets. He’s an ASL interpreter by day. We haven’t met in person yet. He’s married to a Deaf woman and has a Deaf daughter, so he’ll be fine at the table. The other two would be two now-forgotten deaf-blind writers born in the nineteenth century, whose work I am shortly to resurrect, and I’m hoping they’ll fall in love with each other. Then Paul and I would write poems in tribute to their audacity and courage in the face of their families’ outrage.

Q: If you could be any character in literature, who would you be?

A: Nobody, because I’m not willing to give up being deaf-blind, and the deaf-blind characters in literature thus far are done all wrong. But if I could make a character deaf-blind . . . Diderot, in his “Letter on the Blind,” wrote of a blind man who told him he didn’t want his eyesight restored but wouldn’t mind having much longer arms. So I’m curious about Dr. Reed Richards from “Fantastic Four.” My wife can be the Invisible Woman, and it wouldn’t make a difference to me—I’ll still find her!

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My Alma Mater, Part II of II

[To read Part I, click here.]

Next to Rodman Hall is the boys’ dormitory, Frechette Hall, one of the three Seventies buildings with the dark brown shingles all around the tops. It has three wings, each one a two-story building with narrow windows. Each is connected to the central area via a hallway that is all windows and a roof. At the very center of the common is a fireplace. Not just any fireplace, but one designed for big fires, with a large circular concrete bed and a huge iron chimney like an upside-down trumpet coming down from the pyramidal ceiling, its wide mouth not three feet above the bed. Students hang out there, in spite of other attractions in the common area: the row of booths, a large TV, a billiards table, vending machines, and other things. Perhaps it is the power of the circular that draws them here, or the fact that it is bright but with indirect light.

Out in the back are a playground, a tar-and-gravel basketball court, and a limestone cottage, the home of the school’s Boy Scouts troop. This being the rear end of the campus, the backdrop is dominated by trees. This is the site of my earliest memories of the school, from the several summer-school sessions I attended before I transferred there as a full-time student for my sixth grade year. Both boys and girls slept in Frechette Hall, in separate wings of course, but we shared everything else–the T-shirts we painted in the kitchen, the barbecues we had outside, and the pillows and cushions we sprawled on to watch “Star Wars” flicker on the wall–the reels had come from the National Association of the Deaf, which captioned films before captioning became standard.

The next two buildings we students almost never entered. The power plant, a military-style block with Eisenhower written all over it, is where the school groundskeepers and maintenance men lurk. They all were hearing men in my time, and I think they all still are, many belonging to the same families, and I don’t remember ever seeing any one of them sign. Their wives worked in the cafeteria and, because of their daily contact with students, more of them signed. The school during my time there had only one deaf janitor, a lady who was born in Taiwan. Because I had deaf parents, she knew them and always asked me to tell them hello for her. I remember grumbling about there not being more deaf people working in the cafeteria or in maintenance. But that they loved the campus was and is evident, everything there testifying to their care. The women cooked first-rate meals and one of them was a legendary baker of cakes. For them, the school must have been like, as it was for us but in a different way, a second home.

Tucked behind the power plant is the campus’s oldest standing building. Erected in 1896, it used to be the school’s laundry facility, where girls also learned dressmaking. Long boarded up and now beyond restoration, it will be razed sometime in the near future. Beyond the slowly-crumbling edifice is the same backdrop of trees, but with a faded sidewalk going all the way to the railroad tracks at the foot of the bluff, where the river glides by. If you pay attention, you will find an even fainter walk splitting off into the woods, ending at a fire pit. No doubt many sweethearts had their rendezvous here.

Back up the trail and back to Olof Hanson Drive, there is a pair of rectangular buildings opposite Tate Hall across the green. Mott Hall and Pollard Hall are on what used to be the original Mott Hall, the school’s first large-scale building. Begun in 1868 and completed in 1879, the imposing structure was razed after it was declared a fire hazard. Many alumni thought and still think that this towering edifice should never have been destroyed. However, it had so many architectural flourishes that it made me dizzy when I first saw a sketch. I suspect that it would not have agreed with modern sensibilities anyway. The “new” Mott Hall houses a printing shop, a carpentry shop, and a metalworks and welding shop, all very important in the old days, when most deaf boys graduated fully trained for trade work, especially in printing. Pollard Hall houses the offices that offer various special services, such as the state information clearinghouse on deaf children.

Atop a gentle knoll is the campus’s second state landmark after Tate Hall, an impressive domed building with two wings bent back so that it might look like, from above, a stubby boomerang with a ball at its elbow. Noyes Hall is named after the school’s second superintendent, who served from 1866 to 1896. The nascent poet in me was often in awe of his full name, Jonathan Lovejoy Noyes. The main entrance leads into the auditorium, where there is a stage. At either side of the stage, in a recess in the wall, is a white bust, one of Tate and the other of Noyes. The central ceiling is the dome, where there used to be a skylight. Facing the stage and looking up, one cannot miss two massive paintings. A WPA artist during the Great Depression created these images. On the left wall, the painting is of a sunny day with a rainbow, some chubby clouds, and yellow-green grass–California grass, not Minnesota grass. In the middle of this idyllic landscape is a huge human hand, rising out of the ground like a mountain. The hand is dry and cracked. On the opposite wall the painting depicts a stormy night with bolts of lightning, but here the hand is smooth and luminous. I suppose the artist was telling deaf students that struggle is good.

There is a balcony, with fixed wooden theater seats, but the floor of the auditorium is bare except when chairs are set out. The school proms and dances usually take place there. There is a play put out by the students every spring. Commencement exercises. Visiting speakers. And weddings. By state law, the superintendent of the school is vested with the power to perform marriages. Alumni, teachers, and staff have gladly availed themselves of this service for over one hundred years. How nice it is to have a friend, not a stranger, officiate on your special day, and how nice it is, if you are deaf, to have your vows read to you in your own language instead of through an interpreter! Noyes himself–with his large Victorian belly straining against waistcoast, gold chains dangling, and whiskers on full display–loved to perform on such occasions. The new superintendent, Bradley Harper, the father of one of my classmates, had wanted to become the first American Pope. That didn’t work out, but at least he’ll be able to do weddings.

Behind the west wing of Noyes Hall is Quinn Hall, where the elementary classrooms are. It has another, smaller auditorium, one more suited to presentations and workshops because there are steps along the entire length of the stage. So it is a popular site for practical, as opposed to formal, presentations and meetings. The rest of the building is low and something of a maze. Outside, the same wood-shingled top of this Seventies building also roofs two open-air passages, one leading to the back of Noyes Hall, and the other to the last of the squat Seventies buildings, Smith Hall, where the high school is. It is named after my favorite alumnus, Dr. James L. Smith, who worked at the school for exactly fifty years, from 1885 to 1935, as a teacher and then principal, and a longtime editor of The Companion. Like Olof Hanson and another alumnus, the investment banker Jay Cooke Howard, Smith served as president of the National Association of the Deaf.

It being Minnesota, it is no surprise that there are underground tunnels. Tate Hall, Lauritsen Gymnasium, Rodman and Frechette Halls, the power plant, Mott, Pollard, and Noyes Halls are all connected. Because of asbestos, access to the tunnels is now restricted. But they once were used often enough for strips of wet green grass to fend off snow for weeks in the beginning of winter. I remember reading an issue of The Companion from the Twenties and the school’s folksy science teacher, Victor Spence, reported observing a robin and her nest of pale blue eggs on one such green lane, not yet knowing, it seemed that it was winter. When I was a student, I entered a tunnel only once. It was football training camp before school started. A vicious wind descended, and we were told that a tornado was coming our way. We scurried into Tate Hall and down into its tunnel. We were soon joined by the freshly-showered volleyball players, and I remember thinking how we must have smelled, sweaty and mud-streaked as we were, in our long-unwashed practice jerseys. But the girls seemed not to mind, and we all picked up where we last left off in our never-ending conversation and laughter, our faces and hands glowing in the gloom.

That I was born in Minnesota and not another state is an important factor. Playing football and participating in academic competitions in the Great Plains Schools for the Deaf conference, and thanks to my parents’ tradition of stopping by at deaf schools on vacations, I have visited many schools for the deaf and also some for the blind. No other campus compares in character and beauty to my alma mater. Call me biased, but I’m not alone in this opinion. In one old issue of The Companion, James L. Smith, reporting on the proceedings of a teachers’ conference that took place on campus, wrote of entering an empty classroom and noticing a message chalked on the blackboard. It said, “I have never seen a grounds of a school for the deaf so beautiful as yours.” In those days, the school surely had stiff competition in this department, as the deaf baby boom of the Sixties was still in the future. When that boom hit, many schools were forced to hastily erect new buildings. For some reason, my alma mater’s enrollment numbers have kept between 150 and 250 students through most of its history, allowing the campus to retain its basic layout around the open green. It was beautiful then, but it must be even more outstanding now, in contrast to all of the schools marred by the boom and its aftermath-stuck with empty buildings.

One of the best things about going to a deaf school is acquiring roots. The first thing deaf people ask one another when meeting for the first time is “Where did you go to school?” Often there is only one degree of removal between any two deaf persons, so intricately and deeply connected is the deaf community. Before we even met, my wife, from North Carolina School for the Deaf, and I shared at least three points of connection: The fact my father graduated from her school, our having studied leadership under Frank R. Turk, and our having both served on superintendent selection committees that hired the same person, Dr. Katherine Jankowski, who first headed her school before moving to mine some years later.

And no graduate of a deaf school is a stranger to history. We are in awe of deaf luminaries after whom our buildings are named or who grace the walls of our school museums or Halls of Fame. Because we are there, too, walking the same paths they walked, sitting in the same classrooms they did, and even meeting them in the flesh, we grow comfortable with history, with the making of history. When I went to Gallaudet, University, the leading historically deaf college in Washington, D.C., it was already a familiar place with familiar names: The Elstad Auditorium, named after our sixth superintendent and later president of Gallaudet; the Hanson Plaza, named after Olof’s wife, Agatha, the first deaf woman to graduate from Gallaudet and one-time teacher at our school; the Washburn Arts Building, named after a Minnesota alumnus, the impressively-named Cadwallader Lincoln Washburn, widely regarded as the best dry-point etch artist the world has ever seen; and all manner of other indications of Minnesotan presence. Some years ago, when I was invited to give a series of talks at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y., I stayed in Peterson Hall, named after an alumnus and longtime teacher at my school, Peter N. Peterson. I haven’t been there, but when I do visit the Southwestern Collegiate Institute for the Deaf in Texas, I will smile because its founder, Douglas Burke, came from my school.

As historic my alma mater is, the years I spent there as a student, from fall 1990 until my graduation in 1997, were among the most exciting in its history. It was the peak of the Deaf Pride Movement. American Sign Language linguistics and Deaf Studies were taught for the first time. The students led a successful protest that brought in our first deaf superintendent. The 1992 football team won The Silent News national championship honors. The Academic Bowl team won five straight championships. And the girls’ basketball team! Led by Nanette Virnig, the Johnson sisters, and the unforgettable Ronda Jo Miller, it won five straight national championships. Those girls went on to lead Gallaudet’s women’s team on an unprecedented run that garnered national attention, including two books. When Miller was lighting up Lauritsen Gymnasium, scholarship offers poured in from Division I schools, but she was only interested in Gallaudet, a Division III school. Hearing scouts, coaches, and reporters couldn’t understand how she could sweep aside all those offers, but we understood. We all would have done the same. Miller finished her collegiate career as the all-time scoring leader in Division III.

I was there and I am still there. In 1993, a group of deaf teachers were fed up with hearing teachers and staff speaking in their presence without signing. They successfully passed a motion to declare the entire campus a “signing zone.” Signs reminding everyone to sign would be put up everywhere. They held a contest, asking students to enter logo ideas. My drawing won. It shows a green slope with five figures on it, silhouetted against a yellow sun, and above this two blue cloud-like hands making the ASL word “signing.” They ordered a pile of those signs, and my art teacher, Bonnie Gonzalez, asked me to add my John Hancock to every single one of them. But I wrote my name in print, “John Clark.” She asked me why I didn’t sign my name with a flourish. I said I wanted to make sure people could read my name.

So I have many fingerprints on the campus. On entering the campus, one sees a huge sign–my sign–with the words “Welcome” and “Please use sign language.” On leaving the campus, the last things one sees are two of my signs, on either pillar of the entrance pillars, with the words “Thank You for Signing.” The signs are also in every building (except, probably, the power plant). But this is not how I want to close this tour of my alma mater.

I have mentioned football but not where the football field is. It is behind Tate Hall and occupies part of a long level field that includes tennis courts and more flat green behind Lauritsen Gymnasium. Across the street that borders this field are old-fashioned houses and beyond them more houses and streets. I wonder if, during all those years, the residents of those houses, sitting on their front porches, have wondered about what it was like to be deaf and to go to that school across the street. All they can see,
except for when we practiced or had games and the deaf community came out to root for us, is the back of Tate Hall and the back of Lauritsen Gymnasium. Did they have any idea what it was like to be inside the campus, to be like me or Maurice Potter, after whom the football field is named?

Whenever I saw the aged, stooped Maurice Potter, Class of 1928, star athlete and many years a professional baseball umpire, at our games, I made a point to say hello. He always had an interest in us students. Some years after I graduated, I ran into his son, Jim, who was my math teacher and who had retired at the same time my class graduated, giving us a moving commencement address. I asked after his father and learned that it was near the end. Maurice could no longer drive or attend the home games. But he would ask his son to drive him to the campus, just to take a slow turn around Olof Hanson Drive. And father and son would look out of the car windows and, as I have so often done in my mind, take it all in again.

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My Alma Mater – Part I of II

Tate Hall MSAD

Tate Hall, MSAD

When people go blind, they are rarely in a hurry to pick up a white cane. They choose to train their eyes on the ground as they walk. Even after they begin to bump into poles and other people, they don’t want to use the white cane, which would broadcast their blindness to the world. Some have been hit by cars multiple times before they finally unfold the metal feeler. By then, when their eyes are at last free to roam about again, they don’t see much of anything.

Because I was born deaf in Minnesota, I avoided this fate. Not blindness, for I became legally blind when I was twelve and my vision continued to change until I was twenty-five. But I spent an unusually short season watching the ground before me. You see, it was my good fortune to be a student at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf, which happens to have some of the loveliest grounds I have ever laid my eyes on. It was this beauty that, in good measure, encouraged me to use a cane and retire my eyes to a life of leisure. This is not unlike how many deaf people enjoy music, reserving their residual hearing for pleasure instead of straining at speech. The rest of what I needed to embrace my deaf-blindness came from the culture of the school and from my family, both of which were, and still are, proud to be “different.”

Like many schools for the deaf founded in the nineteenth century, my alma mater is on elevated ground so the poor unfortunates would be clolser to Heaven. The campus rests atop a tree-filled bluff overlooking the Straight River and a winding road that soon intersects with the still-intact Main Street in Faribault, the seat of Rice County, about an hour’s drive south of the Twin Cities. Sharing the same bluff but effectively separate is the private boarding school, Shattuck-St. Mary’s, famous for its hockey teams and for expelling Marlon Brando.

Whether it was intended from the beginning and all along I do not know, but the layout of the buildings is in perfect tune with deaf culture. At the center is an open green, which has a baseball diamond and some maple and oak trees beyond the outfield. Olof Hanson Drive, a one-way road and the first state “highway” to be named after a deaf man (who was a one-time president of the National Association of the Deaf and a renowned architect and minister), circles this green. All of the main buildings except one more or less face this green and thus each other, giving the campus the feeling of an enclosed, almost secret garden. And it is a garden, with spacious lawns in front of the buildings, smooth white sidewalks, well-tended shrubbery,
and green lamp-posts topped by white globes that shine orange-yellow at night.

The buildings are all of native limestone, smooth-cut where the stones meet one another but crag-hewn on the outside. Three of the newest were built during the Seventies, squat, saved from looking naked and bald by their dark wood-shingled tops. The rest, except two, were built in the early part of the twentieth century. Two of the older establishments are neo-classical masterpieces and are state landmarks. The limestone is still yellow on the newer buildings and it ranges from pink to brown on the older buildings.

The first building on the right of the curve that begins the circle is Tate Hall. It is a long, massive mansion featuring marching rows of tall windows with green shutters and white trim. At the end of either wing is an elevated porch with white columns and stone stairs on either side, going front or back. The main entrance has wide stairs leading up to tall columns supporting a wide Doric gable. If there were two marble lions, they wouldn’t have been out of place. At the middle of the long slate roof is a white cupola. Tate Hall houses the girls’ dormitory, the administrative offices, and the infirmary, as well as the old superintendent’s apartments, now the school museum. James N. Tate himself dropped dead there in 1923–I can show you the very spot.

Lauritsen Gym - MSAD

Lauritsen Gym - MSAD

Past the playground near the south porch of Tate Hall, past a picnic pavilion, looms Lauritsen Gymnasium. Because of the way the two main entrances jut out a bit like the corners of a castle, with GIRLS carved in
stone above one and BOYS the other, and above each at the top a gable, the structure has a somewhat gothic appearance. The fact that the large upper windows, where the basketball court is, are frosted adds to this appearance. They are like the heavy lids, half-closed, of a gargoyle.

When it opened in 1930, it wasn’t called the Lauritsen Gymnasium, for Dr. Wesley Lauritsen had graduated from the school only thirteen years earlier and just in the beginning his long career, which included serving as athletic director and editor of the school’s highly regarded and nationally distributed paper The Companion. He retired in 1962 in time to complete a history of the school for its centennial festivities in 1963. Until his death in 1991, he attended almost every home game, standing at the same spot where he stood as athletic director. It was only after his death that the then-current athletic director was able to stand at that ideal place, surveying the entire court, the bleachers, and the balcony above one of the hoops. When I enrolled, I quickly learned of Lauritsen’s most famous saying, also the title of his editorial column, “Good Work Is Never Lost.”

The gymnasium in its early days was such a jewel, with a court that could be divided into two still-full courts that colleges rented it for home games and tournaments. The University of Minnesota five played there, leading to some confusion in the local papers because both the university and deaf school teams were called the Gophers. The deaf school helped the situation by changing the name to the Hilltoppers. Because it proved difficult to design an attractive pictorial logo–they once used a hill with a spinning top at its apex, and at another time, inexplicably, a mosquito–the students voted in 1971 to change it to the Trojans. In time, the gymnasium ceased to be a coveted venue, but it remains a popular gathering place for the deaf
community, especially when the opposing team is another deaf school. One wonderful part of the deaf school experience is traveling to other states to play their deaf school teams.

Across the lane that branches off Olof Hanson Drive and into Shattuck campus, with a Civil War-era cannon out in front, is Rodman Hall. It is where the students eat three meals every day and on the weekends the school is open to host home games against out-of-state deaf schools. It is a squarish building with trees close to its two main entrances, again one for girls and one for boys. Not that boys and girls have to enter at the one or the other like they were required to do in the old days, when all of the boys ate at one end of the dining hall and all the girls at the other, but the boys’ entrance is closer to the boys’ dormitory and Tate Hall is closer to the girls’ door. The cafeteria is on the second floor, in a high-ceilinged room with huge windows. The first floor is a student community space, called the Friendship Room.

It is fitting that Rodman Hall and Lauritsen Gymnasium are next to each other, for the men they are named after entered the school together, although Roy Rodman never graduated. Instead, he was hired as a janitor.
Over his long career, he accrued such respect and status that he was regarded as the personal owner of the entire campus. Dr. Frank R. Turk, an alumnus and the deaf youth leadership guru, loves to tell Rodman stories, which always illustrate the value of character and hard work. Legend has it that Rodman polished every single light bulb on campus, including the rows of high lights in Noyes Hall Auditorium, no small task. He protected the hardwood floor in the gymnasium with his body, not allowing a single outdoor shoe to tread upon it, not even if it belonged to a referee. During chapel on Sundays, in the days when most students stayed on campus for months at a time and the school still had such Bible talks, Rodman watched the chairs like a hawk, swooping down on anyone who caused a chair to get out of line.

About that cannon out in front: It was used to celebrate touchdowns in the days before football players wore helmets. Deaf people enjoyed hearing or feeling the booms. Our closest modern equivalent is the big marching-band bass drum, which some deaf football teams use for counting up to snaps and for cheers. My football coach, Mike Cashman, a history buff, once told me that the cannon was abandoned and wasn’t found again for many years. It is now home to birds’ nests, and from time to time students sit on it or lean against it or take team or group photographs with it. Down from the mouth of the cannon, about five feet underground, there lies buried a time capsule. During summer school 1990, before I enrolled in the fall, we were asked to make this time capsule and to return in the summer of 2000 to dig it up. That summer came and went without anyone doing such a thing, and I suspect I am the only one who remembers. I suppose I am waiting for it to be of a decent vintage before I go out there with a shovel.

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ASL Literature On Paper

First line of Clayton Valli's Dandelions poem


For a long time, I have been bothered by the lack of growth in ASL literature. Why aren’t there more stories and poems? Why are there so few ASL creators following in the steps of pioneers such as Clayton Valli? Why aren’t there ASL novels? And, most troubling of all, why aren’t more people lapping up the literature that we do have? I’ve met too many people who shrug and say, “Not interested.”

I had vague ideas as to why, but when I learned about recent developments in written ASL, everything became clear to me.

There have been earlier attempts at a written system. They fall into two categories: illustration and notation. Sutton’s SignWriting is a good example of the former, as it includes the whole upper body. Head, arms, hands, torso. Line after line of mannequins with their limbs in different positions. Stokoe’s system of recording ASL words by using Roman letters and Arabic numerals belongs to the latter group. But the new development is the first that feels like reading, not deciphering, and writing, as opposed to drawing or writing in code.

The new approach, which has already split into several camps, with my favorite being the ASLwrite group, uses only the strokes necessary to establish the words, nothing more. Extramanual markers, such as facial expressions, are added only when necessary for clear composition or to distinguish between potentially different meanings. In spite of this stripped-down approach, it is still faithful enough to actual signing that an ASL student can learn it and can read a new ASL word, one she has never seen spoken before, and know how to say it. Add the fact that people who already know ASL can become fluent in written ASL in a matter of weeks, and we have here the strongest claim ever for there being a written form of ASL.

What does it mean for ASL literature? It solves the fundamental problems that have held ASL literature back for centuries. The first problem has to do with how participation in creating ASL literature has not been open and accessible to everyone in the signing community. It’s no accident that most of the pioneers in ASL literature were actors. They were trained as performers, to express clear ASL, to follow scripts. Feeling at home onstage or in front of cameras, the artistic ones found themselves experimenting and creating with their hands. Also, Hollywood and Broadway weren’t clamoring for deaf actors. Becoming a storyteller (Bernard Bragg), a comedian (Mary Beth Miller), or a poet (Patrick Graybill) was a way to remain onstage as much as possible.

Meanwhile, a few others who were not actors by trade also experimented and created (such as Ella Mae Lentz and Valli). To share their work, however, they had to become performers. It might have been possible for a non-performer to create ASL pieces and have a professional performer execute them. But the logistics necessary to pull this off were such that they effectively prevented anyone from doing this in any notable way until Valli’s second video poetry collection. By then, he was an established figure in the community and had special access to video equipment and performers (most of whom were his students).

There were also a few deaf writers writing in English. They had to grapple with the oppressive weight of the canon’s long tradition of audism. It took a long time before the first novel by a deaf American about the deaf community was written—Douglass Bullard’s Islay (1986).

There were an unknown number of deaf people who possessed the gift of wit, observation, and artistic synthesis but who, for whatever reasons, could not or would not become performers or write at length in English. Such hidden gems shared casual stories with friends, told the wickedest jokes at the club, and burst out in poetic eloquence at meetings or at the kitchen table. My father is one of them, a born poet, the creator of many sparkling fragments he’s not inclined to “perform” on purpose. These moments of clairvoyance and literary brilliance were not harnessed nor built upon.

While literature in ASL can escape the weight of the English canon more effectively than deaf literature in English can, it has serious challenges of its own. One is that the ASL speaker doesn’t have the same advantages that a writer enjoys. The hearing critic Arthur Krystal dwelt on these advantages in a New York Times essay called “When Writers Speak.” He noticed how writers he admired didn’t sound as smart when they spoke. He understood, because he feels smarter when he himself writes. Perhaps writers don’t think until they sit down to write!

When Krystal discussed this with the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, the latter suggested a more precise way of explaining this phenomenon. As Krystal rephrased it, Pinker pointed out that “the reason we sound smarter when writing is because we deliberately set out to be clear and precise, a luxury not usually afforded us in conversation.” This explanation bears on spoken ASL, for its speakers usually have only conversational literacy in their language. Without writing the words on paper, they have almost no opportunity to study what they’re saying, to go back and revise, or to mull for a moment over how to put something before saying it.

Another challenge is that it can be easy for performer and viewer alike to treat ASL literature like eye candy. ASL is so visually elastic that many creators fall in love with its cinematic qualities, focusing on those at the expense of content. But, always, after a while the special effects start to become cloying. Performers become frustrated, and viewers lose interest until the next novelty act arrives on the scene. Few realize that the core problem is that the story itself isn’t strong—poor character development, no plot, lack of conflict, no emotional payoff.

But when a story is written down on paper, it is naked. Written ASL will, as written English does, force authors to inject narrative power or literary beauty into the very text. And when a performer with dynamite hands tells the story, it will work because the story already worked just fine without the performer. Content is the boss.

It makes sense that these historical challenges has limited the creation of high-quality, thought-provoking ASL literature. The signing community, like all of the cultures that do not have or did not have a written language, has a rich tradition of passing stories down through the generations. As important as this tradition is, it doesn’t function in the same way that literature does. Literature is the ever-changing DNA of the community, representing in meaningful and memorable forms the lives and experiences of a people. Deaf writers in English and ASL performers do contribute to this literature, but there are huge gaps. To fill these, we need to have ASL writers sitting at their desks late at night, poring over and tinkering with the fifth draft of a novel.

We know why we don’t yet have an ASL novel. To create such a sophisticated, sustained work would be extremely difficult with only conversational, on-the-spot-and-then-gone ASL at our disposal. But even if someone managed to cobble together a DVD novel made up of a long series of “chapters,” performed and taped one at a time, it’s not likely that it would have been a success. While I loved Bernard Bragg’s box-set video memoir The Man Behind the Mask, it didn’t sell as well as his book Lessons in Laughter, co-written with Eugene Bergman.

Ben Bahan’s fable Bird of a Different Feather was superbly done, but I had trouble keeping my attention trained on the screen after the first five minutes. Similarly, Patrick Graybill’s extended ASL summary of Harlan Lane’s monumental history When the Mind Hears was a flop. Graybill is always a joy to watch, such an exquisite speaker, but the product as a whole did not work.


Because of what I call the movie problem. You know how people always say that the book is better than the movie? No matter how good the movie is, there’s nothing like entering into a book. One cannot enter the movie; the screen is always at some remove. The story, in the movie, is happening to other people. But in the book, you are there. The story is happening to you. The movie has decided how everyone looks, and it’s never as you would have imagined it.

This problem is the same reason the blind community has a literacy issue. Most blind children go to public schools where their teachers know nothing about Braille. This means most blind people rely exclusively on audio materials. They may speak English well and they may have unlimited exposure to spoken English, but they are not fully literate in English. They still need Braille. Carl T. Rodgers explains in Understanding Braille: “The benefits inherent in direct visual or tactual reading experiences cannot be replaced by listening to the printed word through someone else’s voice.”

Someone else’s voice. Someone else’s hands. It’s not that we cannot enjoy ASL performances. Readings, videos, and theater are still important. But there’s something about the abstract, bare symbols on the page that invites our minds to engage, argue with, and absorb the language before us. We cannot do these things as well when we are only spectators.

One of the most important things the new developers did with written ASL was to make it a rule that writers are to project themselves spatially onto the page. If the writer is right-handed and says “Hello,” his hand, from his own point of view, moves right. He is to write “Hello” in that way. He is not to write as if it’s someone else saying “Hello” to him. Written ASL does not create a movie screen or a line of mannequins. Instead, it creates space for us to say things as ourselves. And it creates space, when we are reading it, to fall into the text. In that space, we are there.

And that’s how ASL literature will finally get there, too.

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An Open Letter to American Heritage Dictionary

[UPDATE: AHD will revise the definition of "audism." Read comments for further information.]

Dear Editors:

When I learned that you had added an entry for the word “audism” in your esteemed dictionary, I was thrilled. I had been wondering when the word would ever appear in dictionaries. It was coined in 1975 by Tom L. Humphries to name the prevalent attitude and assumption that hearing people are superior to deaf people. The word became a wellspring of dialogue about the discrimination against deaf cultures and languages. Since the publication in 1992 of Harlan Lane’s extended discussion on institutional audism in a book called “The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community,” there has been a steady stream of writing, artwork, and film on the subject.

And here, at long last, was validation from a powerful source of authority!

Then I read the definition.

“Discrimination or prejudice against people based on the fact that their ability to hear is impaired or absent.”

The first half-”Discrimination or prejudice against people”-is fine.  But
the second half has so many problems that it cancels and defeats the
meaning. Never have so few words set off so many explosions in my head. Allow me to take you through it step by step:

“the fact”: This hints at a justification for audism, as it brings up the
notion of there being something objective, something which cannot be helped. Discrimination is distasteful, yes, but there is the FACT that . . . what? That there’s something wrong with those people.

“their ability”: By this, you are establishing a framework within which your readers are to understand victims of audism, in terms of their ability or disability. This is exactly what deaf people, for centuries now, have been fighting against. As the Deaf writer and activist Ryan Commerson puts it, “disability” implies that there are some people who are “able” in every way. Since no such persons exist, the notion of “normal” ability is an invention, and a dangerous one.

“to hear”: This focuses the definition on the proverbial box around the
ear–that is, the deaf ear. The broken one, the one at fault, the one that needs to be fixed. The medical establishment likes to separate deafness from deaf people, because it sounds good to say “We’re trying to cure deafness” and it sounds bad to say “We’re trying to eradicate deaf people and their cultures.”

“is impaired”: The term “hearing-impaired” is a favorite of hearing journalists and bureaucrats who mistakenly believe they are being politically correct when they use it instead of “deaf.” Deaf organizations the world over have denounced the usage. Even non-culturally deaf and hard of hearing people are opposed to it, making “impaired” an absolute no-no.

“or absent”: The whole history of audist literature and philosophy about deaf people and deafness is contained in this single word, “absent.” The most relentless and harmful statement is that the absence of hearing or speech equals the absence of intelligence. Hearing people and societies have often seen, and continue to see, deaf people as non-beings on whom they can project their fears and desires. Deafness is a state of nothingness, of silence. It is death. That “absent,” with its long history of destruction, should be used here to describe deaf people is truly appalling.

So that’s what you have given us: An audist definition of audism. Do you realize that it is like defining racism as “discrimination against people whose skin is defective or discolored”?

The signing community has used various definitions, and I strongly suggest that you draw up a new definition based on them. “Audism is the belief in the supremacy of hearing and speech.” “Audism is an audiocentric orientation, a system of advantages and privileges that favors hearing.” I like a close rephrase of a definition the National Association of the Deaf proposed to Merriam-Webster (which hasn’t added the word): “Prejudice, stereotype, or discrimination based on hearing, typically against deaf

None of these definitions are tied to deaf people’s ears, referring only to hearing in general. All of these definitions include those who are not deaf but who are still victims of audism, such as a hearing child of a deaf adult who is forced by a doctor to interpret because the clinic won’t provide a professional interpreter or hearing parents of deaf children who have to fight against school district administrators to get access and appropriate services for their children.

Audism is serious. It is in your dictionary. I ask that you make it right-by defining it without practicing it.

Hoping that you will take action soon, I am

Sincerely yours,

John Lee Clark


Ten Fingers Have I

I can still remember the first time I read a poem by a deaf poet. I was fourteen, flipping through our family’s dog-eared copy of Jack R. Gannon’s Deaf Heritage. I had put that massive book on my lap many times before, but it was always to look at the pictures. This time, though, I was paying attention to the words, as I had recently discovered the joys of reading.

One of the few poems quoted in the book, “Ten Fingers Have I” by Loy E. Golladay, leapt at me:

Ten Fingers Have I

Ten fingers have I, twining smooth and white,
Wherewith I tell that which my tongue cannot.
No laggards they, to set love’s eyes alight,
While my rude tongue sounds strange and polyglot.
Ten points of flame to tell the poet’s fire,
Or trace the lightning from a turbid sky;
To pluck soft music from a stringless lyre,
Or hurl toward heaven that great question: Why?
Ten tongues that bid the speaking tongue be still;
Ten rebel tongues that these my woes declare,
Though light these woes be (have it so I will);
That may infrequently be found in prayer.
If these be tongues, then ten-fold told my tale
Than one rude tongue in speaking could avail.

Did I understand all of that? No. But I did come away with enough: The fingers ablaze, sweeping through the air like Star Wars lightsabers. I liked how the poem seemed to say that signing is ten times better than speaking because the mouth has only one fat finger and hands have ten tongues, “twining smooth and white.” This sonnet stirred my deaf pride and, I have no doubt, gave me my first small permission slip to write.

About Loy E. Golladay (1914-1999): He taught at the American School for the Deaf before joining fellow deaf poet Robert F. Panara to be among the earliest faculty members of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. He is the author of the poetry collection A Is for Alice (1990) and six of his poems are featured in Deaf American Poetry.

[This piece first appeared in SIGNews.]

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DeafBlind History Workshop at U of VA

The Annual ASL/Deaf Culture Lecture Series
at the University of Virginia



“Writing from the Margins: Deaf-Blind People in North America, 1850 to the

Tuesday, February 21, 2012
7:00 p.m.
Nau Hall auditorium (room 101)
University of Virginia

In this groundbreaking lecture, John Lee Clark will call attention to an
overlooked group in North America: deaf-blind people. Clark will show how a
few deaf-blind people in the mid-nineteenth century built a network of
correspondents, forming a “virtual” place of their own that remains today
the community’s most vital space. Meanwhile, actual deaf-blind experience –
how and where deaf-blind people live, whom they marry, what they do for a
living — has gone through big shifts in some locales while in others little
has changed. Clark will consider why this group has been largely overlooked
and what this neglect reveals about deaf-blind people’s place in society.

A second-generation deaf-blind person, Clark is a writer and editor whose
work has appeared in diverse publications, including The Chronicle of Higher
Education, McSweeney’s, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Poetry, and The Seneca
Review. He has published a collection of poems called _Suddenly Slow_
(Handtype Press, 2008) and edited the anthology _Deaf American Poetry_
(Gallaudet University Press, 2009). Among other projects, he is currently
working on an international collection of deaf-blind writing from 1780 to
the present. This lecture is believed to be the first presentation ever by a
deaf-blind person at U.Va., and will be one of the first times the story of
the deaf-blind community is told.

*Free and open to the public.
*Refreshments to follow.
*The lecture will be in ASL with English voice interpretation. Requests for
further accommodations should be sent to Kate O’Varanese at
<>. Deadline for requests: Feb. 7, 2012.

Please join us!


>From the North:
Take US Route 29 South until you drive under the US 250 Bypass. Remain on 29
South Business (Emmet Street) and continue straight past the intersection
with US Route 250 Business (University Avenue/Ivy Road). Continue straight,
go under two bridges, and follow Emmet St. as it curves sharply to the left
and becomes Jefferson Park Avenue. Continue straight at the first
stoplight. At the second stoplight (Brandon Avenue), turn right. See below
for directions on how to get to the parking lot and Nau Hall.

>From the East via I-64
Take I-64 West to Exit 118B, Proceed on US 29 North and then take the US 29
North Business exit. Turn right onto Fontaine Avenue after coming off the
ramp. Follow the signs to the Medical Center/University Hospital. Continue
on US 29 North Business to the traffic light. After the traffic light, you
will be on Jefferson Park Avenue. Continue straight. At the next light turn
right. The next intersection will be with Brandon Ave.; turn right onto
Brandon. See below for directions on how to get to the parking lot and Nau

>From the South:
Take US Route 29 North to the US 29 North Business exit. Turn right when
coming off the exit ramp onto Fontaine Avenue. Follow the signs to the
Medical Center/University Hospital. Continue on US 29 North Business to the
traffic light. After the traffic light, you will be on Jefferson Park
Avenue. Continue straight. At the next light turn right. The next
intersection will be with Brandon Ave.; turn right onto Brandon. See below
for directions on how to get to the parking lot and Nau Hall.

>From the West via I-64:
Take I-64 East to Exit 118. Proceed on US 29 North and then take the US 29
North Business exit. Turn right onto Fontaine Avenue after coming off the
ramp. Follow the signs to the Medical Center/University Hospital. Continue
on US 29 North Business to the traffic light. After the traffic light, you
will be on Jefferson Park Avenue. Continue straight. At the next light
turn right. The next intersection will be with Brandon Ave.; turn right
onto Brandon. See below for directions on how to get to the parking lot and
Nau Hall.

To K2 parking lot and Nau Hall

Once you are on Brandon Avenue, continue for one long block to the parking
lot on your right. Park there in one of the reserved spaces marked
“American Sign Language.” The parking lot is behind Nau Hall. It is a new
building; the auditorium is on the first floor, in room 101.

On this map

Nau Hall is #43.

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ASL and the Star-Spangled Banner

“The Star-Spangled Banner” holds a peculiar place in the signing community. As deaf Americans, our relationship with it is as complex as our relationship is with our country, a nation where we have been and continue to be oppressed and persecuted. We learn at an early age that all the talk of freedom isn’t always about us. Consider, for example, what a deaf high schooler named Julie Ann Lewis wrote in a poem called “Hear Me America” (1996). It closes with these lines: “My voice is not free– / How can this be / In this free Republic?”

On a more practical level, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is in English, which is not native to deaf culture. Further distancing it from us, it finds its expression most often as a piece of music, sung at important occasions and sporting events. Even when the anthem is accompanied by a signed version, we have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is good to have signing displayed in public, something we cannot take for granted because of oralist campaigns in the past against the public use of sign language. On the other hand, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is almost never signed well or in a way that makes sense in our language. This forces us to wonder if the signing is there for us or more for the pleasure of hearing people who don’t know the difference.

The Super Bowl is a prime example of this problem. Ever since Lori Hilary signed the anthem at Super Bowl XXVI in 1992, signed renditions have been part of the highest-rated television program on earth. This makes these glimpses the biggest exposure our language receives each year. They are much better for ASL awareness than the static I Love You sign. But are deaf people inspired by these performances? Hardly. Only snatches of the signer are shown. Worse, most of the performances at the Super Bowl–and elsewhere–follow the same broken formula.

This is strange, because deaf people have been signing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for a long time, since before it became our national anthem on March 3, 1931. The deaf elite, made up mainly of graduates of Gallaudet College, enjoyed “rendering in signs” various poems and songs, as it signified their level of education and facility with the English language. Those who did this well were praised. Take this admiring passage written in an obituary in the Illinois Advance on the death of National Association of the Deaf’s third president, Dudley Webster George (1855-1930):

“He was a master of the English language and of the sign language. Of the correct use and beauty of both he was in precept and example an ardent exponent. No one who ever saw him address a meeting or render in signs the ‘Marseillaise’ or the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ or any other poem will ever forget it.”

We cannot be certain, without watching a film of George’s version, how he executed it. But we do know that “mastery” of reciting poems in those days meant transliteration or something similar to what we today call Pidgin Signed English. Signers would follow the word order of the original English text, delete unnecessary bits like “the” and “of,” and try to sign the words as gracefully as possible. No matter how impressive the bearing of the signer or how beautiful the sweep of the hands, it made little sense as an ASL text. If you taught a deaf child only ASL, without ever introducing English, and he saw “The Star-Spangled Banner” signed, it would have no meaning.

Signed renditions, then, were not ASL renditions at all. Instead, they were a way to present the English text in “signs,” in order that signers “read” the song in the air. This did not mean deaf people weren’t moved by the signing of the song. There is still charm and a kind of beauty in the signed versions, and through ritual use, it can become so familiar that it cannot help but resonate. Still, “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been signed again and again for over a century without much improvement. Why has the signed version failed to evolve into a true ASL translation?

The obvious answer is that the signed version has long been expected to accompany the music. The national anthem is signed at every graduation and before every sporting event at every pro-ASL school for the deaf–which means thousands of performances each year–but all of them involve a sound recording and, often, a hearing “coach” leading the deaf signers to make sure they keep time. While a translation, by definition, must needs be linked to the original, the demand that the signed version follow the sound has severely limited the potential for a meaningful ASL version.

The earliest known film of signing of any kind was of, yes, “The Star-Spangled Banner” being signed. Made in 1902 by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company and labeled “Deaf Mute Girl Reciting the Star-Spangled Banner,” the film clip linked below can be difficult to follow. But also linked below is Susie Koehn’s rendering, made in 1943. What is striking about these two versions is how alike they are. And that same basic version is still performed today. Some new versions may appear to be better, but at closer inspection they use the same transliteration approach.

“Deaf Mute Girl Reciting the Star-Spangled Banner,” 1902:

Susie Koehn’s version, 1943:

Amazingly, the 1902 signer got one thing linguistically right that none of the others since has gotten right: For “the home of the brave,” the “Deaf Mute Girl” signed “home brave men,” while most signers close with “home brave.” But proper ASL usage begs the question “Brave what?” Of course, it is an old gender bias to think of the brave as men. A true ASL translation must resolve this issue of what or whom the word “brave” refers to or it must shift the concept. “Home people themselves brave”? “Our home inspire bravery”?

That all of the signed versions have since abstracted the meaning of “the brave” and almost everything else tells us that few have been interested in making the signed version communicate the song to deaf people. The signed versions appear to have been and continue to be more a function of displaying the “beauty” of sign language to hearing people. This would explain why the accuracy of the signed versions as ASL pieces has never been a major concern. Moreover, the national anthem is most often signed when there are hearing people in the audience. It is rare for the anthem to be performed at deaf-only, deaf-run events.

If deaf performers have been used as puppets, signing something that is meaningless in their language, it is no wonder “The Star-Spangled Banner” is not a sacred text in deaf culture. In fact, ASL literature is full of hilarious spoofs and political adaptations. Patrick Graybill, in his one-man show for the renowned “Live at SMI!” series, apes his former hearing teacher’s horrendous signs reciting “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Mary Beth Miller has an even funnier routine in her own “Live at SMI!” video. She performs different versions, from opera style (“OOOooohhhHHHhh ssSSaaAAyyYY cccaaaNNN YYYOOOuuUUuuUU SsSsEsEeee) to fingerspelling alone in the Rochester Method (ohsaycanyousee) to, finally, a sincere rendering that is similar to the one in the above-mentioned films. And the great ASL poet and activist Ella Mae Lentz has adapted it to deliver a political message. In her poem, ASL itself is the banner, persisting in the face of discrimination and language barriers. It closes by saying “Hands are still signing in the land of the Deaf free and the home of the Deaf brave.”

Ella Mae Lentz:

As powerful as Lentz’s message is, her poem is still heavily influenced by the classic abstract signed version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” For example, she still opens it with the dawn before awkwardly jumping back in time to the previous night by signing “Last night . . .” Nevertheless, it is a successful adaptation because deaf viewers would recognize what it borrows from, the same old version that always starts with seeing something and then the sun coming up.

That the signed versions have been chained, sign for word, to the English version has not passed all unnoticed. The Deaf Pride movement did enlighten some people to a degree that they became uncomfortable with the traditional signed version. A new approach began appearing in the late 1990s at the more progressive bilingual deaf schools, in which the anthem is turned into a kind of short play. Involving choreography, it features various performers enacting different things in the anthem–rockets, the flag–and taking turns signing bits. In some versions, the performers would sign the last lines together. These creative pieces are a bold departure from the traditional approach. Yet the theatrical nature of this method abstracts the meaning of the anthem as much as the traditional version does. We still lack a true ASL translation.

Which brings us to the question of how “The Star-Spangled Banner” should be translated. First, we must abandon the idea of following the sound recordings. The ASL translation can be signed while the music is playing, and with practice both can end at about the same time, but we must no longer think in terms of the two moving together line by line. The most necessary difference between the two would be moving, in the ASL version, the dawn to near the end. This move would allow us to, at long last, make use of ASL’s cinematic qualities by first setting up the situation. This will, more than anything else, open deaf people’s eyes to the actual content of the anthem. To have a better grasp of the cinematic possibilities, it is instructive to know the story of how “The Star-Spangled Banner” came to be written.

It was two years into the War of 1812 between our young republic and its former mother country, England. After a victory in Washington, D.C., the British were advancing on Baltimore. Before they could enter the city, they needed to destroy Fort McHenry. The largest and strongest ships from the British fleet were anchored in front of the fort, their heavy guns ready to blast away. One of the prisoners onboard the Admiral’s flagship was a beloved doctor, William Beanes. His friends wanted to rescue him and secured an official letter from President Madison stating that the good doctor was not a solider but a private citizen. Now someone had to go to that ship and present the letter to the admiral and ask for Dr. Beanes’s release.

Francis Scott Key and another friend volunteered for the mission, and they went across Chesapeake Bay on a government boat under a flag of truce. They rowed right up to the flagship and were allowed to go on board. The admiral agreed to release Dr. Beanes but said that, unfortunately, they were about to open fire on Fort McHenry. He did not want the Americans to run to the fort and warn the soldiers there, so he charged them to stay away from the shoreline until the fort was destroyed. They could return to their boat and stay on it, and he assured them that they wouldn’t have to wait long because the British guns would flatten the fort in no time.

That’s how Key ended up stuck on that boat, at a safe distance from the fleet. He was not happy about this circumstance, because he was a volunteer soldier and wanted to fight with his countrymen inside the fort. He was also concerned for his brother-in-law, who was the commanding officer at the fort, and he knew the force there was small.

As night fell, the British began their bombardment of the fort. Key and his companions could not see anything except for the “rockets’ red glare” and whatever it illuminated. Every time there was an explosion, they could see the stars and stripes flying. As long as the flag was still waving, the fort was still standing. But at some point during the night, the guns stopped, and there was nothing but darkness. Did this mean the fort was down?

Then “the dawn’s early light” came, but there was a heavy morning fog. They still could not see the fort at all. As the fog thinned and lifted, there it was! The massive star-spangled banner was still waving! Key cried to his companions, “Oh say can you see!” The attack on Fort McHenry had failed. As the ships left and the Americans’ boat made its way toward the shore, Key was already writing down on an envelope the lines of a poem. This poem was printed under the title of “Bombardment of Fort McHenry” and was such a hit that it was being sung in New Orleans within six days, which means it spread faster than the postage. It had three stanzas, and the first stanza became our national anthem but not before it was already our nation’s most popular patriotic songs.

There is much in this inspiring story that can help us create a powerful ASL version that would make linguistic sense and signed as a true ASL poem. To begin with, there’s the chronology, starting with the situation, the Americans stuck on the boat, on the sidelines watching the ships on one side and the fort on the other. The bad signed version doesn’t establish this situation at all; the signer looks ahead and just signs. This leads to some visual contradictions, such as the signer talking about looking over the ramparts and then talking about seeing the flag. How can one see the flag ahead while one is also looking over the ramparts, a position where the flag would be directly above, not ahead of the signer at some distance?

An ASL version would set the ships–or, at the least, one set of the guns involved in the conflict–to one side and the fort and the flag on the other side, and the signer would refer to each side by turns throughout, with the default “narrator” looking ahead being the Americans on the sidelines, watching, helpless, hoping, and with the coming of dawn’s early light, joyous.

Their joy can become our joy when we have “The Star-Spangled Banner” unfurled, full and clear, in our own language. We deserve that, for we are, too, Americans.

[I am grateful for the generous assistance of the following while researching for this article: Jean Bergey of Gallaudet University; Adrean Clark, Creative Director of Clerc Scar; Lawrence Newman, author of SANDS OF TIME: NAD PRESIDENTS, 1880-2003; and Patti Durr and Karen Christie, faculty members in the Department of Creative and Cultural Studies at the National Technical Institute of the Deaf.]

[This piece first appeared in Laurent, a publication by Clerc Scar.]

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