Some have said that Drake, best known for his emo Hip-hop music and black and Jewish roots, owes his success to his ability to code-switch. Code-switching involves moving freely between two different languages or dialects of a single language. For many people of color, especially mixed-race and multi-cultural people, code-switching is natural and happens in speech without much thought–if any any at all.
The same can be said about Sheena Cobb, 29. Cobb uses both ‘mainstream’ American Sign Language (ASL) and Black ASL depending on who she is with.
“I've used mainstream ASL because a lot of people in the community use it, she said through a video-phone interpreter system called VRS. "When I'm with black deaf people, then we usually, naturally revert to Black ASL."
Like Drake's moving between dialects, Dr. Carolyn McCaskill, professor of ASL and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet, a federally chartered private university for the deaf and hard of hearing located in Washington, D.C., has called this type of switch cultural and linguistic code-switching.
But the act of code-switching, at least among the black deaf is nothing new. Phrases like “what’s up” and “my bad” are signed differently in Black ASL, which tends to be more expressive in nature than mainstream ASL.
A common misconception is that sign language is a universal language. It is not. In fact, there are more than 200 distinct sign languages around the world.
According to Dr. Joseph Hill, assistant professor in the Professions of Deafness Programs at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, language variation happens for two reasons: social factors (such as age, gender, race and socio-economics) and geographical factors (such as whether someone is from the North or the South). So, it would be impossible for there to be one universal sign language.
ASL is "a complete, complex language that employs signs made by moving the hands combined with facial expressions and postures of the body. It is the primary language of many North Americans who are deaf and is one of several communication options used by people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing," according to the National Institute of Health.
In communities where there is a significant deaf population, a regional dialect may form. Famous examples include Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, Kata Kolok in Bali, Adamorobe Sign Language in Ghana and Yucatec Maya sign language in Mexico, according to Disabled World.
Because "black deaf people have been exposed to the same social elements that black hearing people enjoy and practice in their communities, it makes sense that there are elements of black culture that appear in Black ASL such as religious practice, cooking, humor, musical entertainment, clothing, hairstyles, words and phrases that typically used in the black communities, and protections against racism," said Dr. Hill in an e-mail.
People who use Black ASL tend to sign with two hands, in different positions, in a larger signing space and with more repetition than with mainstream ASL signs.
“With professors, I talk in a proper way that's a mainstream manner, but when I'm at home, it's a different situation,” said Cobb who became deaf when she was 18-months-old. She grew up in Virginia and was raised primarily by her grandmother who learned ASL to better communicate with her. Together they spoke mainstream ASL, but once she made other black deaf friends, she began signing in a more colloquial way.
Cobb now lives with her girlfriend in Nashville. Her girlfriend, who is also deaf, introduced her to Nashville's style of ASL.
“If I'm signing with my friends, they understand completely,” Cobb said. “If I’m signing with my family, sometimes they don't.”
Cobb comes from a predominantly hearing family whose knowledge of ASL isn’t as strong as hers, so they lean more ‘mainstream’ when signing.
But, “whether you speak Black ASL or not, being deaf, black and gay, you face additional discrimination,” Cobb said.
According to Dr. Hill, there exists some bias against Black ASL among the deaf, just like there is against Ebonics among hearing people.
"There is a heavy stigma against Ebonics because it doesn't sound 'professional' or 'normal,' but it is a dialect just like many other dialects in the country," Dr. Hill said. "So no one should be ashamed to use it. But, I know it doesn't mean that it is accepted [everywhere]. I am sure that there are unpleasant comments about Black ASL and they are most likely have something to do with black people. There's racism and bigotry still going on in the deaf community as well so I won't be surprised if there is stigma attached to Black ASL."
McCaskill is among several scholars championing the study and acceptance of Black ASL.
Along with a team of researchers, including Dr. Hill, McCaskill wrote The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL a book (along with an accompanying DVD) that is the first of it’s kind in researching Black ASL.
The first school for white deaf children was established in 1817, but educational programs for black deaf children weren’t created until the mid-1850s, though "segregation endured in most cases until the mid-1960s, well after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision," according to the book.
The team visited schools in the south because of the history of educational segregation. They traveled to North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Virginia and Louisiana where they conducted interviews and filmed conversations between signers who were over 55 (and grew up during segregation) and signers who were under 30 (went to integrated schools). A selection of videos can be seen here.