Deaf World: essay reflection

I’m starting a series of reflections on essays from the book Deaf World, edited by Lois Bragg. All essays in this text are by d/Deaf authors, meaning it is both a primary resource and, thanks to the scope of essays, a historical reader.

In the essay “On Planning a Deaf-Mute Commonwealth,” J.J. Flournoy and Edmond Booth are the main debaters of the need and practicality of a self-run “deaf-mute” community. The claims and responses are published from September 1857 to June 1858 in the American Annals of the Deaf. Interspersed are comments from other readers that address Booth’s and Flournoy’s arguments, and it should be noted all participants in the conversation are deaf. 

The key points of the debate include: the practicality of an all-deaf community when most children of deaf adults are hearing; access to education, especially reading and writing; land ownership, inheriting land, and sale of land; ostracization deaf people experience in hearing communities that leads to loneliness; and whether the government would provide funding based on the history of grants given to underserved populations. 

Firstly, the diction stands out to me because it reflects the language of the time. “Mute” and “deaf-mute” label a community that, today, would be “Deaf,” or maybe “deaf.” Thus, reading a historic text written by d/Deaf authors got me thinking more about how we might describe the d/Deaf population in the late 1800’s while maintaining accurate labels and avoiding unintentional offense. Because Flournoy describes the “deaf-mute” population as scattered across the U.S. and living alone, I wonder if capital-D Deaf is accurate. Can a few people be said to have a culture, even if they use ASL? I do not know the answer to this question—yet. 

Furthermore, the authors present individualistic and collective thinking. Booth argues the “deaf-mute” population is fine scattered around the U.S., and if they want to meet with other deaf people, there is good public transportation (in the Northern U.S., not the Southern). Rather than seeing a deaf collectivist community having the means to raise all people intellectually, he feels the uneducated deaf would repel educated deaf from joining the all-deaf community. I focus on this moment because my understanding is Deaf people today celebrate and support the achievements of all community members, though “crab theory” is an issue in most minority populations, including the d/Deaf. What was happening in the 1850’s that split the deaf community by education, and does that feeling still exist today? 

In contrast, Flournoy’s point that educated deaf people would serve as role models for uneducated citizens rings truer to what I’ve learned about Deaf culture in the last few decades. I am curious as to why Flournoy emphasizes reading as a sign of intelligence. Is this hearing culture intrusion, and does “educated” versus “uneducated” simply mean those who can read and those who cannot? Later, another contributor named Carlin states that deaf people learn to read only so they can communicate with hearing people. While Carlin agrees with Flournoy that deaf Americans are at a disadvantage by being spread out, his ideas further challenge Flournoy by dismissing reading as a sign of intelligence and positing it is a tool of social survival. In reflection, I wonder if reading is today viewed as a requirement to coexist in hearing/English society, or if reading is valued as part of Deaf culture. Carlin and Flournoy imply different relationships between reading and deaf people. 

Lastly, I was intrigued by the debate around land ownership for a few reasons. If you look at a map of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe reservation in central Michigan, my parents’ home is located within the boundaries. However, we are not Native Americans. At one point, that land was sold to our white family, as were many other homes in the area. Therefore, I understand the concern of future residents of the hypothetical deaf commonwealth. At what point is the project moot because so many hearing people live on the “reservation”? I hadn’t thought of a commonwealth as being like a reservation, but I do know it takes a lot of money for the Tribe in my hometown to protect their culture, language, and history. How might a deaf community fund itself to safeguard their culture? 

Previously, I taught Black Lit to college students, and we discussed the pros and cons of a state given by the U.S. government to Black Americans as repayment for slavery and an effort to quell racial tension. In his autobiography, Malcolm X argues that white men will never accept Black men as fully human, so it behooves both races to separate. Martin Luther King, Jr., of course, disagreed and explained in his “I Have a Dream” speech that he supports integration. For me, reading a d/Deaf perspective on integration and segregation was both familiar and new. When Malcolm X theorizes about a Black state, he doesn’t argue about education and home ownership; instead, his focus is on Black-owned businesses, which none of the respondents in “On Planning a Deaf-Mute Commonwealth” discuss. 

Published by Grab the Lapels

I'm a graduate of the MFA fiction writing program at the University of Notre Dame, which inspired me to follow along with trends in teaching, publishing, and reviewing. I also have an MA and BS from Central Michigan University. I used to teach composition, creative writing, and literature in higher education, then did a brief stint at a civic theater, followed by two years at a references desk at a public library. I'm now working toward my ASL Interpreter license.

2 thoughts on “Deaf World: essay reflection

  1. I think reading is a marker of education, and was probably even more so in the nineteenth century, when it wasn’t universal. Writing gives all (sighted) people the ability to communicate over distance and time. Was Carlin really saying that a Deaf commonwealth could/should do without writing?


    1. John Carlin writes, “As regards the founding of a deaf-mute commonwealth any where, the obstacles to it ultimate success are truly formidable. It must be borne in mind that nine-tenths of the whole deaf-mute community in this country can not raise up the wind so as to swell the flapping sails of Mr. Flournoy’s scheme; besides, it is a well known fact that the majority of them show little decision of purpose in any enterprise whatever. For my own part, failing to perceive the practicability of the scheme, to which Mr. Flournoy clings with a constancy worthy of a better cause, I am content with my being ‘lost among the hearing persons,’ whose superior knowledge of the English language benefits my mind far more than would the perpetual gestures of the thousands of bona fide residents in [the hypothetical all-Deaf community]” (22).

      Bill, I find this interesting because it views English as superior to ASL, and we must keep in mind that ASL and English are not the same language. Depending on when a person became deaf or was exposed to ASL, English may or may not be their first language. Also, keep in mind that ASL was not even considered a language with grammar, syntax, phonology, etc. until 1960, and these letters are from 1858. Pretty interesting, yeah?


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