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:

http://videocatalog.gallaudet.edu/player.cfm?video=11318

Susie Koehn’s version, 1943:

http://videocatalog.gallaudet.edu/player.cfm?video=14188

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:

http://www.ellasflashlight.com/?p=29

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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