The Power of Deaf Poetry: The Exhibition of Literacy and the Nineteenth-Century Sign Language Debates

Article excerpt

IN 1886, AT THE HEIGHT of the nineteenth-century sign language debates in Europe and North America, Edward Miner Gallaudet, a leading figure in American deaf education, was called before the British Royal Commission on the Blind and the Deaf and Dumb. His goal was to defend the use of signed languages in deaf education and the wider deaf community.1 The commissioners were charged with investigating the best ways to educate both deaf and blind children in government-funded schools. This mandate included settling the controversy over which of the competing systems of deaf education-oralism, manualism, or a combined system-would be best for the deaf students and the nation. The commissioners, who were especially concerned about oralists' claims that, without speech, deaf people faced poor economic prospects, asked Gallaudet about the current professions of the non-orally trained graduates of the American National Deaf-Mute College. Gallaudet gave examples of graduates who communicated "entirely by writing or by the fingers" and were prospering in various fields (1889, 468). Through these examples he aimed "to show that the practice of the oral method with the deaf is not essential to the highest success in the various pursuits which they take up" (ibid.). And then, to emphasize his point, Gallaudet read aloud a sonnet written by one of the deaf graduates of the college.

While a sonnet seems like an anomalous piece of evidence for the vocational success of deaf people when considered alongside the various reports, statistical analyses, and other concrete data presented to the commission by various witnesses, Gallaudet's recitation of Amos G. Draper's sonnet was an example of a common practice of refuting oralists' arguments by exhibiting the skills of manually-educated deaf people. Furthermore, this poetry reading at the British Royal Commission was only one example of a larger movement that mobilized the poetry that deaf people created to defend their rights to use signed languages and resist the oralists' imperative to speak. Though the oralist movement waged its batdes against signed languages in government commissions, congresses of educators, educational journals, and even the popular press, various members of the deaf community, who were often denied a "voice" at these more official forums, attempted to resist oralism by creating counternarratives to the traditional oralist denigrations of signed languages. By publishing poetry, as well as articles about deaf poetry (such as Gallaudet's survey of the field, "Poetry of the Deaf," published in Harper's Magazine in 1884), members of the deaf community and their supporters were able to both offer their own perspectives on signed languages and provide evidence of signers' capabilities. In fact, after reading Draper's sonnet aloud, Gallaudet submitted his article on the "Poetry of the Deaf" to the commission as evidence.

Carol Padden and Tom Humphries argue that American Sign Language (ASL) poetry played a role in the important Deaf cultural movement that took place from the 19605 through the 1980$. They suggest that this poetry contributed to a new sense of pride in ASL, in addition to offering a Deaf cultural perspective on the value of signed languages (2005, 131). In this article I extend Padden and Humphries's assessment of the political and social value of Deaf poetry to another important historical moment for the deaf community: the nineteenthcentury British and North American sign language debates. I demonstrate that the poetry written by deaf people played an important and unique role during these debates in defending signers' abilities and deaf people's rights to sign against the oralist ideology, which claimed that, without speech, deaf people would be unsuccessful with language and therefore unsuccessful in their lives. Nineteenth-century oralists claimed that signed languages were inferior to spoken languages for a variety of reasons, including their belief that signed languages prevented their users from functioning abstractly in both thought and language and interfered with their English language acquisition. …