Hill offers this example. In Louisiana, the older generation of Black ASL signers referred to the days of the week by counting down with their fingers. For example, five is for Monday, four is for Tuesday… to the closed fist for Saturday, and the praying hands for Sunday. However, the younger generation of Black Deaf signers instead uses the mainstream variety of ASL, in which the signs have an initial sign letter of each day, such as ‘M’ for Monday, ‘T’ for Tuesday, and ‘H’ for Thursday. The difference for Sunday is the open palm in a circular or downward movement.
Hill and his research team interviewed Black Deaf people in southern states, observing sign language, facial expressions, and movements.
“Black ASL is real—and often hidden—and needs to be uncovered, which is our purpose,” said Hill, who is also co-author of The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure, and one of the associate producers of “Signing Black in America,” the 14th documentary film in the Language and Life Project series, released by PBS in 2019.
“When I became involved in this research as a young Ph.D. student myself, I discovered that this area presented a rare opportunity to be transformative. It’s special.”
Hill isn’t the only one who thinks his work is special.
“Professor Hill’s research was eye-opening for me,” said Player. “His work with the Black ASL Project broadened my understanding of sociolinguistics in sign language, which is still not fully researched by sign language linguist scholars as much as it should be. I hope I can do the same for New Mexican Deaf communities as he did for those of us living in Black Deaf communities.”
Ceil Lucas, professor emerita of linguistics at Gallaudet University, and a Black ASL project leader, was Hill’s mentor on the Black ASL project.
“During our time working together and, even since then, Joseph has continually challenged me and has further underscored the importance of this research. His understanding and, more importantly, his desire to capture and preserve a lost language is both noteworthy and inspirational.”
Hill hopes he and others like Lucas and Player can be advocates for Black Deaf communities everywhere.
“My goal was to tell the stories of Black Deaf Americans and their rich history and culture,” Hill said. “Black Deaf people should be proud of their identity, their experiences, and their language. This is about resiliency through generations.”