DeafNYC: Subverting Hegemony with Slam Poetry

The construction of identity is a communal endeavor; we contribute to the identity of ourselves and those we encounter through our attitudes and historical biases.  Stuart Hall discusses identity as “an ever-unfinished conversation.”  Much of his work concerning identity relies on the construction of identity in the context of confrontation of difference.  He speaks to his experience of race in Kingston, Jamaica and London, England.  In Jamaica, where the majority of the community was black, there was no recognition of race; however, once he arrived in London he was greeted with the long-standing conception of race surrounding the color of his skin.  As a member of a historically marginalized group, he experienced the biases and perceptions of  hegemonic groups that were attributed to his identity.

In his book Orientalism, Edward Said discusses the importance of recognizing hegemonic biases in constructing the identity of an “Other.”  Said describes these assumptions as results of a highly motivated process; we view the “Other” through a lens that distorts reality and alienates one culture from another. He emphasizes the manner in which hegemonic groups distinguish themselves from minorities as a means of maintaining power.  By patronizing and “Other-ing” marginalized groups hegemonic groups perpetuate harmful ethnocentric ideas.Most importantly, these cultural theorists recognized identity as an ongoing product of history and culture.

With all this in mind, we turn to a historically marginalized community that continues to navigate hegemonic spaces with creativity, passion, and grace.  Since at least 1000 BCE, deaf individuals and communities have been perpetually marginalized by hegemonic groups, or groups that hold social and political power.

This held true through the Ancient Greeks (384-322 BCE); prominent philosopher Aristotle claimed that deaf individuals are “born incapable to reason” and “could not be educated [because] without hearing, people could not learn.”  Deaf individuals have been excluded from participating in government; the unnamed deaf son of King Croesus of Lydia was not recognized as a legitimate heir.  Furthermore, St. Augustine, apologist of the Catholic church, proselytized that deaf children were a result of God’s anger at the sins of their parents.  Much of the deaf community’s value had been historically defined by hearing individuals.  Until the sixteenth century, there was little educational opportunity for deaf individuals; the first book of well-known signs was not published until 1620 by Juan Pablo Bonet.

Since then, deaf schools have opened, hundreds of sign languages have developed, and the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 to grant equal access to the deaf, hard-of-hearing, wheelchair bound, and other differently abled communities.  While significant advances have been made in the United States and Europe regarding protection under the law and increased accessibility for deaf individuals, there is still a lot of ground to cover both domestically and internationally for the Deaf community.

Part of navigating hegemonic spaces is creating space that intentionally addresses the needs and desires of a given marginalized group.  The Deaf community of New York City provides multiple platforms for the deaf population to share in American Sign Language (hereafter ASL) and performance.  Deaf events and events with accommodations for deaf individuals throughout the city can be found here through DeafNYC.  These include a variety of events, anywhere from Deaf coffee to plays with translators, infrared hearing systems, captioned performances, to slam poetry performed by members of the Deaf community.

One of the many notable events is ASL Slam, a monthly event that showcases featured ASL poets and provides a platform for aspiring ASL performers.  Founded in 2005, ASL Slam maintains the mission to provide a space for artists in the Deaf community to present and cultivate their work in front of a live audience.  As a community, ASL Slam seeks to and successfully promotes a safe and supportive environment for new and experimental artists in various forms, including performance art, literature, improvisation, visual art and music.  They host varying types of events including open slams, featured artists, and interviews with notable members of the Deaf community.

This installment of ASL Slam featured a founding member of ASL and star of the documentary Deaf jam, Aneta Brodski.  The majority of her stage time was devoted to an interview about her experiences as a deaf woman with a remarkably intersectional identity.  Not only is she deaf, but she was born in Uzbekistan to deaf Russian Jewish parents, lived in Israel, and immigrated to the United States where she attended the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, New York.  At Lexington, she was exposed to ASL poetry and quickly developed a compelling poetic voice in three-dimensional poetry.

Aneta emphasized two major points concerning the deaf community: education and accessibility.  Many schools with deaf children continue to use teaching methods that do not adequately address the needs of non-hearing students.  The most common teaching method is Oralism, the education of deaf students through oral language by using lip reading, speech, and mimicking the mouth shapes and breathing patterns of speech instead of using sign language within the classroom.

The topic of Oralism is one of heated debate among parents and educators of deaf and hard of hearing children.  Many believe this practice is not in place for the education of students, but rather the assimilation of deaf individuals into the hearing community, that Oralism exists for the convenience hearing people rather than the benefit of deaf students.  For this reason, Aneta found school frustrating and often stayed home where she could communicate with her family.  Much of her identity as a deaf woman was shaped by the institutional biases concerning hard of hearing and deaf students in schools with hearing teachers.  Once she took an ASL poetry workshop, she was able to communicate in more meaningful, intentional, and artistic ways with other deaf students.

So much of the success of the Deaf community has been rooted in the accessibility of language, in New York today and past Deaf communities. In Martha’s Vineyard from 1694 through the nineteenth century, as few as one in twenty-five and as many as one in four residents were deaf due to hereditary hearing issues.  The community developed its own sign language, MVSL; members of the community who did not know sign language were considered ignorant.  Knowledge and practice of sign language in this so-called deaf utopia was so commonplace that most town meetings were conducted in sign language so as to accommodate the needs of the community.

ASL Slam is an excellent example of an intentionally accommodating space.  Despite being a space for the Deaf community, interviews and emcees sign with vocalizing translators.  As a perpetually marginalized community, in terms of accessibility and accommodation, deaf individuals recognize the importance of understanding and communication in shared spaces.

As Aneta continues to advocate for deaf rights, her main concerns are education and accessibility in public spaces.  This includes a sign-language based education system, requiring family of deaf children to learn and use sign language in the home, intentional spaces for Deaf students to explore more creative means of expression, and public accommodations including signing translators and availability of captioning in public spaces, including entertainment (plays, movie theaters etc).  Aneta has traveled to Ecuador and Australia in pursuit of these goals.  She has not only visited Deaf schools and communities, but also has made efforts to bring these issues to the attention of public officials, with the intent of creating more accommodating spaces for deaf individuals.

The Deaf community has navigated a society in which their value has been defined by structures and individuals that do not understand them.  They have taken space into their own hands and constructed a network of support in the face of historical adversity with enthusiasm and grace.  To find Deaf events in your area, check out Deaf Standard Time and Deaf Websites.

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