This is the fifth in 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.
“Coming to California” by Albert Ballin is an excerpt from a a semi-autobiographical work published in 1930. Ballin’s excerpt opens with a ship traveling to California. He and his friends can sign goodbyes much longer than the hearing passengers are able to shout and hear them, and he feels proud of that. After arriving in the United States, Ballin is surprised that almost no one in the film industry knows signs, other than Lon Chaney, an actor famous for his expressive physical acting, and a CODA (Child of a Deaf Adult). Interestingly, when Marlee Matlin won an Oscar for her role in Children of a Lesser God, critics made the same comment about how expressive her face and body language were.
To support his point that everyone in film should sign, Ballin provides an example of an actress unable to hear the director over loud wind machines and men jumping on boards. Ultimately, the “talkie” films are becoming more popular for a variety of reasons, and Ballin wishes people would listen to the reason of silent star Charlie Chaplin, who feels there is no art in a “talkie.” In the end, Ballin grows weary of people asking him why he can’t lipread, sometimes explaining to them and other times making cheeky comments to get off the conversation.
I hadn’t realized that hearing and Deaf actors were on equal footing in early Hollywood during the silent film era, and wondered if much like Martha’s Vineyard everyone knew how to sign in order to cooperate. However, I was confused that Ballin was surprised by Californians in Hollywood not signing. Where did he come from that he expected they would? The ship he boards is named Finland, so I guessed he was European. However, I cannot confirm that. References online say he was American but that he studied in Europe, but I’m not confident citing any sources I found, which are minimal at best.
Ballin presents an interesting argument about movies and accessibility, one that is not well supported. He claims people who can’t read, immigrants whose first language is not English, and d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing people benefit from silent pictures without caption cards. He feels that there is a universal artistry and appeal to silent movies, which I disagree with because cultural norms are not universal. Yet, when someone notes that blind people can’t see silent films, Ballin claims blind people don’t buy tickets anyway, which is unsupported and reads flippantly. Because he is dismissive, it is hard for me to take Ballin seriously in this section of his autobiography.
Even worse, the text suggests Ballin is racist. He believes the jazz age doesn’t seem to be letting up, but that the musical style from Black culture is “clamor worthy only of savages” (32). Ballin doesn’t mean people who are unrefined in an artistic sense; his word choice is a common racial slur used in the Reconstruction Era in the U.S., during which Ballin lived, that denotes former slaves and their children as less than human.
Still, Ballin’s excerpt isn’t entirely without a clear argument and sound support. When he must repeatedly explain why he can’t read lips, his reasoning neatly summarizes the oppression Deaf people face constantly. For a late-deafened person to lip read is easier because they know the sounds of words. But, for a person born deaf, it takes decades to lipread poorly, and at the expense of critical education. He hits it home when he responds to an actress who doesn’t understand why he can’t read her lips: “All these years [learning to lip read] are given to save you and those like you some thirty minutes [writing or trying to fingerspell] of your whole life” (32). Although I know that the attempt to pass as hearing through speech therapy and the loss of information is unethical, and it’s hard to believe anyone thinks it’s a good idea to skip science and history for making the “correct” sounds, for Ballin to boil it down to an inconvenience in one actress’s life is like a punch in the face. Just thirty minutes of her entire life.
2 thoughts on “Deaf World: essay reflection”
You don’t give a year (or I didn’t see one) for Ballin’s voyage on the Finland.
The SS Finland was operated by the (US) Red Star Line out of NY. Ballin was probably sailing NY to San Francisco, especially if it was after 1918.
That makes sense! I don’t have the book with me right now, and it’s possible he doesn’t mention the year in his essay.