Monday, January 18, 2016

Identity in Deaf and Black Culture

I have been pondering issues of identity in Deaf culture as I conduct research on my current novel, featuring a few hard of hearing characters and at least one Deaf character.  As I think about issues of identity in Deaf culture, I have compared it in my mind to issues of identity in Black culture. Although I am not Black, I am married to a Black man and our three sons are all different shades of brown.  So I have witnessed their identity choices - do they consider themselves Black and part of the Black community?  We were part of a Black church for the first 20 years of our marriage -- first a very large African American church in Jamaica, Queens, Allen A.M.E. Church, then a small, mostly African American church in East Elmhurst, Queens.  In those churches our sons were part of Black religious culture, celebrating Black History Month, absorbing values and music and food of Black culture.  For the last 10  years we have been part of a multi-ethnic church in Jersey City, New Jersey. But we have lived in diverse neighborhoods since our first son was born, and all three of them have always enjoyed a mix of friends from all kinds of backgrounds and cultures.

Our sons are different shades of brown and have made choices concerning their identity.  We have told them growing up that they are both Black and White.  They don't have to choose. They are both.  Our society might want them to be in one category  - the U.S. Census only recently allowed people to choose more than one ethnic background.  But most forms require people to choose one ethnicity, which is absurd as so many people have a mixed background. Light-skinned Blacks can either identify closely with the Black community, consider themselves Black or "mixed," or "pass" as white.

Clara Lee Fisher (woman) is a
descendant of
Madison Hemings.
Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings had six children, four of whom survived infancy.  Three of those children chose to "pass" as white -- daughter Harriet, and sons Bevery and Eston -- and one chose to identify as Black - Madison.  They were all quite light-skinned.  They chose their identity - they considered themselves part of either the White community or the Black community.

I think something similar happens in the Deaf and hard of hearing community.  Those who are hard of hearing either identify strongly with the Deaf community, and choose to be a part of that culture, or they choose to assimilate into the larger hearing community.  Just as dark-skinned blacks cannot choose to identify as White, those who are profoundly Deaf cannot choose to identify as hearing.  But for the light-skinned Blacks, and for the hard of hearing, there is a choice to be made.  Sometimes parents force that choice early on, but in adulthood, every hard of hearing person can choose to identify closely with the Deaf community, or to assimiliate into the larger hearing culture.

Yesterday I observed a ballet rehearsal and the instructor is hard of hearing.  She told me that when she was young a nun told her mother that she should be enrolled in a Deaf school.  Her mother refused, so this instructor was raised in a mainstream school and did not grow up learning with and associating with Deaf children.  She assimilated into the hearing community instead of the Deaf community.  As an adult, she functions within the realm of the hearing community and feels most at home there.  Others in her position feel equally at home in the Deaf community.  Choices.

This is my theory.  I would love to hear feedback from those of you in the Black and Deaf community who have more experience and knowledge than I.

No comments:

Post a Comment