Deaf Culture Values: Art and Literature

The Deaf highly value the literature and art of their culture. Deaf Culture art and literature is how the Deaf share their values with future generations – their values of sign language and deafness, Deaf education, Deaf experiences, Deaf pride, and more.

There is a wealth of Deaf art, poetry, stories, theater, media, and even jokes that teach Deaf Culture (most of which are not in a tangible form). Deaf children learn how to fit in with Deaf culture from positive and negative feedback about their behavior and from the stories and literature that are passed down through the generations.

Deaf cultural stories are how Deaf people share their experiences and pass on their knowledge to the next generations. These stories are usually about what it was like growing up deaf, experiencing misunderstandings, etc. Cultural stories are another great way for Deaf people to express themselves.

The world is designed for hearing people, so hearing loss can stir up very strong feelings. The arts offer an outlet for those feelings and always show and support the way Deaf people live their lives—being Deaf and proud!

Deaf Art and ASL Art

Deaf art is a cultural art that reaches both positive and negative ends of the spectrum unlike any other. You can learn so much about the Deaf simply by seeing the artwork that Deaf Culture produces.

Deaf people have experienced many negative life changing events throughout history. They’ve been strongly oppressed and labeled as “non-humans” in the early centuries and even have been forbidden to sign.

Deaf people have also experienced the strong positive connection and community when learning sign language for the first time–like finally finding the light in a dark tunnel.

These positive and negative life experiences of the Deaf can and have been expressed through Deaf Art. The effects of the world on the Deaf can clearly be seen in how Deaf artists express themselves on canvas.

ASL is a visual language and is not written. So, it would seem obvious that the Deaf would be very keen on the visual arts. There are many famous Deaf artists who have continually and accurately portrayed the Deaf experience on their media of choice. Deaf culture itself is even passed down “verbally” through storytelling, theater, and performances–not through books like the hearing culture.

Chuck Baird was a famous American Deaf artist and one of the founders of the De’VIA art movement. De’VIA is a part of Deaf culture where the Deaf experience is expressed through visual art. While Deaf visual art has been created for centuries, the term De’VIA was first recognized as an art genre in 1989.

Mechanical Ear by Chuck Baird

Mechanical Ear by Chuck Baird

One of Chuck Baird’s most notable pieces is “Mechanical Ear.” This painting has been interpreted to mean many possible different things, but the understood meanings are all rooted in the context of Deaf Culture.

Betty G. Miller (also known as Bettigee) was a famous Deaf American artist who is known as the “Mother of De’VIA.”

Ameslan Prohibited by Betty G. Miller

Ameslan Prohibited by Betty G. Miller

One of Betty G. Miller’s most notable pieces of art is the artwork above titled “Ameslan Prohibited.” It was created by Betty 1972. The term “Ameslan” is an early word for ASL that is no longer used. The handcuffs represent how forbidding sign language feels like enslavement to the deaf. And the broken fingers are a violent illustration of the repeated slapping of knuckles with a ruler when deaf children were caught using sign language.

Celebration of Hands by Betty G. Miller

Celebration of Hands by Betty G. Miller

Another piece of artwork by Betty G. Miller is “Celebration of Hands.” This painting was made in 1987 from the projection of a slide from the Spectrum: Focus on Deaf Artists event around 1978. The man in the blue cap is Chuck Baird. [1]

Deaf culture art is more than just a painting or a drawing. It brings the Deaf community together. Deaf culture art puts the feelings that many Deaf people experience on canvas.

The strong negative and strong positive feelings that are shown in art of the Deaf are usually not felt only by the artist. These feelings are widespread throughout the Deaf community. Looking into Deaf art, you can peek into the heart of a Deaf person.

Deaf Poetry and ASL Poetry

Deaf poetry is expressed in ASL. It is almost impossible to translate ASL poetry into English, so to truly experience this form of Deaf art, you must watch it.

Just as English poetry uses spoken/written rhyme and rhythm, ASL poetry does this using movement – a visual form of rhyme and rhythm. And the same way the inflection of your voice shows mood and emotion in English, the inflection and facial expressions used when signing expresses the mood and emotion in ASL poetry.

Douglas Ridloff shares in his TEDx talk titled “Deaf Poets Society” [2]:

Douglas Ridloff - TEDx

“I have two Deaf boys. They’re so rare and so unique. I am blessed and they are blessed because they can play with their sign language in their home environment, which is a safe space for them. When I watch them sign, I realize what a treasure sign language is and I thought about how to preserve it, and I realized it’s through the arts. My objective is simple: I just want my boys to comprehend their place in the lineage of the language and richness and the complexity of it.

Growing up, I never had any Deaf role models until I was 16 years old and for the first time I saw a Deaf poet, Peter Cook, and his linguistic expression just blew my mind… I had this realization about what my thoughts were about sign language being so simple and for communication only. I realized that it had these other modalities, that it had this depth and this fiber to it.

[I] founded my own Deaf Poets Society – one component of which is ASL SLAM. The mission of [ASL SLAM] is to provide a platform, to create a safe space for the Deaf community to play with their language of signs, and to learn to play and to have fun with that.”

Once type of ASL poetry that Douglas Ridloff mentions is “visual vernacular” which is ASL poetry expressed using mostly gestures and visual representations. Since this type of poetry uses the visual portion of ASL instead of the language portion, it has the potential to be understood in international sign language communities as well as by hearing communities who do not know ASL.

Douglas Ridloff collaborated with musicians and created beautiful poetry he performed using both visual vernacular ASL and music during his talk. About this piece, he says:

“So that’s a visual poetic composition merged with a musical composition. The goal of that is to be able to reach out, not just to the international Deaf community, but also to the broader hearing community so that you all can see and understand the richness and the complexity that sign language has within it.

So now I want you as you leave to go seek out your Deaf communities to collaborate with them and make the world a safe space. Just as I want my boys to continue the lineage of the language. We want the entire world to be a safe space for the Deaf community.”

One ASL poem that is a great expression of Deaf Culture is “Nourish and Embrace… it will Thrive” by John Maucere. [3]

ASL poetry has special characteristics that set it apart from spoken poetry. For example, in ASL poetry, you can sign with your left and right hand at the same time. This can allow you to express two different ideas at once. You can see this in the above poem where John can show the feelings of both parents at the same time by signing with both hands.

Also, visual and spatial characteristics in ASL poetry can show ideas without having to sign them explicitly. You can see this in the above poem where the child in the poem is shown as visually shorter to represent a child without John having to sign the word “child” or “baby” at all.

Another wonderful cultural Deaf poem is “Through the Hands” signed by Erica Tara Lily Parker. [4]

As you can see, ASL poetry can beautifully express Deaf cultural feelings and experiences. And seeing ASL poetry for the first time, you may also notice how ASL poetry is different in such a beautiful way compared to spoken poetry. While creating visual images can be difficult in spoken poetry, this is very easy in ASL.

And the visual, descriptive imagery of ASL poetry can paint a picture in space and make it come to life in such a way to sometimes allow even those who do not know ASL to understand and enjoy the message of the poem.

ASL Handshape Stories

Handshape stories are a creative and more simple form of storytelling and poetry in ASL. Handshape stories are stories that are signed using the letters of the alphabet, numbers, or other handshapes.

The same way that hearing children learn parts of language through songs, Deaf children learn this through Deaf literature. For example, with handshape stories, Deaf children can play around with and learn each letter of the alphabet when learning a story.

There are three kinds of handshape stories:

  1. ABC Stories – ABC stories use only the handshapes of the manual alphabet in order from A to Z.
  2. Number Stories – Number stories are like ABC stories, but use numbers instead of letters in a pattern.
  3. One Handshape Stories – One-handshape stories are stories that use only one handshape throughout the entire story.

When signing these stories, you need to follow all grammatical rules as well as keep it in an organized sequence.

This is a beautifully done handshape story by Patrick “Mr. Shineyhead” Fischer about the Titanic: [5]

This is a wonderful example of a handshape story. The detailed, descriptive usage of the alphabet in this story is truly remarkable.

Handshape stories can also be used to communicate Deaf cultural ideas. This is a fantastic cultural handshape story by Maryjean “Mj” Shahen: [6]

Not only are handshape stories a fun way to play with the language of ASL, but they are also very educational for Deaf children and a truly special way to pass down cultural stories and values through the generations.

Deaf Jokes

Deaf jokes are also an essential part of Deaf literature and are usually passed down “orally”.

There are two main types of jokes in Deaf culture. The first type is a joke in which the Deaf person wins. These jokes don’t necessarily make fun of hearing people, but they favor Deaf culture and the Deaf way of life.

An example of this type of joke is one about a Deaf couple at a motel:

A deaf couple check into a motel and go to bed early. The wife wakes her husband in the middle of the night complaining of a headache. She asks him to go to the car to get some aspirin from the glove compartment. Groggy with sleep, he struggles to get up, puts on his robe, and leaves the room to go to the car. He finds the aspirin, and with the bottle in hand he turns toward the motel. But he cannot remember which room is his. After thinking a moment, he returns to the car, places his hand on the horn, holds it down, and waits. Very quickly the motel rooms light up… all but one. It’s his wife’s room, of course. He locks up his car and heads toward the only room without a light on.

In this joke, the Deaf person “wins” because he is deaf.

The second type is a joke related to the linguistics of ASL. For example, the production or mis-production of a sign can be humorous in certain situations.

An example of this type of joke is one about King Kong and a young lady:

This joke is funny because the sign for “marry” is one hand coming down and clasping the other. So, the production of this sign caused King Kong to crush his new love.

As you can see, the Deaf highly value their art and literature as part of their Culture. From the visual arts to ASL poetry, storytelling, handshape stories, and Deaf jokes, the art and literature of the Deaf is how cultural values, beliefs, and experiences are passed down through the generations. ASL is a rich, vibrant language that goes hand-in-hand with Deaf Culture to create some of the most beautiful art and literature you may ever see.

Resources:

[1] “Betty’s Painting, ‘Celebration of Hands Featured on ‘Glee!’” Purple Swirl Arts. 25 September 2013. https://purpleswirlarts.wordpress.com/2013/09/25/bettys-painting-celebration-of-hands-featured-on-glee-9262013/. Accessed 6 July 2020.

[2] Ridloff, Douglas. “Deaf Poets Society.” TEDxVienna. 10 December 2018. https://youtu.be/0LZGYwDO-QE. Accessed 9 July 2020.

[3] Maucere, John. “Nourish and Embrace… it will Thrive.” ASLized! 6 February 2012. https://youtu.be/22jNRRpsj24. Accessed 6 July 2020.

[4] Parker, Erica Tara Lily. “Through the Hands.” ASLized! 26 August 2013. https://youtu.be/EDICsw1-9oQ. Accessed 6 July 2020.

[5] Storyteller and video by Patrick “Mr. Shineyhead” Fischer of Deaf Patrick Fischer, Inc. (deafpatrickfischer.com).

[6] Shahen, Maryjean. “ABC Story Deaf Child of Hearing Parents.” Mj Shahen. 9 February 2020. https://youtu.be/Xa9zrIK5Axk. Accessed 9 July 2020.

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