Sunday, June 17, 2012

31: Is American Deafhood different from British Deafhood?

And no, I don't mean the philosophy.

I mean: Is the American Deaf experience or process of coming to understand oneself by virtue of properly assessing one's place in society, and how that place came to be, different from the British Deaf experience of the same?

And the answer, once you put the question that way, has to be: Yes. Of course it is, because we have different societies, different histories, and different myths, even different influences. And because of that divergence our process and our realization and our understanding of self necessarily has to be somewhat different, even though the principle is the same. This is true for every other Deaf culture in the world, just as it's true that globalization is changing the game for all of us yet again.

To really understand our own Deafhood, we have to understand our society, our history and our myths (the harmful and the harmless and the helpful ones. All of them.)

We have to understand that a lot of our dialogue about ourselves is directly influenced by American society and its own history and myths (and probably French too, and Native American, and German, and all the little iconoclastic cultures which made up the beginnings of the American Deaf experience as they make up, to some extent, the etymologies and histories of our own language.)

I love the book "Deaf History Reader;" regardless of your opinions about Van Cleve, the windows it provides into Deaf American history go past Clerc and Gallaudet to far earlier events. It gives me insight, say, into the true beginnings of American Deaf culture, and why Gallaudet happened here, not in Europe where Deaf people had already been going to college and Deaf exceptions (artists, writers) were known.

What that book reminds me of is that, much like the Pilgrims, early America was all about forming unique communities to escape oppression. And this seems like something elementary schoolish when you put it that way–but it is in many ways a profound realization. Martha's Vineyard's Deaf element was founded by a Deaf man who had achieved unusual success in his career. We don't usually give him the same status we give to other American founders of cities in the wilderness, but isn't that a possible interpretation of Jonathan Lambert's whitewashed life?

Today even Wikipedia says he was nothing but a simple farmer and carpenter. Research has shown he was, instead, the captain of his own ship, a slave ship-the brigantine Tyral (although it's not clear to me that these were racial slaves imported from Africa; it seems that these "slaves" were British prisoners, perhaps a mixed group.) He was a military man and served in the British military for several years as part of expeditions. He did all this as a Deaf man, speaking very little and using signs; visiting dignitaries reported being offended he didn't speak to them–until someone whispered the illustrious leader was Deaf and mute! He bought his own land in 1694 and he passed on his Deafness, culture, and hereditary Kentish sign language to his children, who were brought up in Martha's Vineyard, a place where people apparently had no trouble believing Deaf people could vote and hold political office!

Compare this to the fleeing Puritans who were prevented from practicing their religion or being involved with legal office. They did what - came to America and made sure they had a place where such an opportunity was possible! America has this story again and again: people coming to America to make places for themselves. (Of psychological interest: it may be that Lambert was part of a long line of Lambert captains and sailors which continued in England after Jonathan Lambert's departure. If so, is there a story here of a man who felt less equal in his family, striking out for a new world and new possibilities?)

From as early as the 1700's, then, we had evidence of Deaf leaders in business and politics who fought to establish places where Deaf people had equality. Superiority, perhaps. Does this help us inform the story of Gallaudet? Was the Gallaudet protest part of a long cycle of fighting for equality that began before most even dreamed?

(Note: We might judge Lambert for his involvement with slave activities. I did, at first. But it's important to remember that he too was a child of his time and place. History is an easy place to judge.)

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