Collective Healing: Coming Together to Recover, Recollect, and Redefine our Community From A Painful Hxstory.
Najma S. Johnson, Co-Founder of Together All In Solidarity.
Keynote Presentation 2
Deafhood Banquet vive la Parisian tradition
April 11, 2015.] [Najma with a grey beret, large silver loop earrings, white top, black pants, standing on stage with dark blue background. Behind and to her left is a white male pro-tactile interpreter]
(English translation of presentation is entirely the responsibility of the Deafhood Foundation.)
Hello all. Let you know, this is my pro-tactile interpreter. You may be wondering what he’s doing here. He’s here to work with me.
Before I begin, I want to thank you because I am truly honored to be here. My experience and relationship with Deafhood may be different but honestly I am grateful to be here. To the board, thank you for inviting me. To the community, thank you for inviting me. I am here presenting not for myself, but for my various intersecting communities: Deaf, Deaf-Blind, People of Color including Native-American, Black, Southeast Asian, West African, et cetera, and also the disabled communities.
Sometimes when I give presentations, people share various information with me for me to examine as part of my community work. Here, I will discuss community collective healing. The Deaf history has been horribly painful. Like [person on right] mentioned, it began with Milan and Oralism is still controlling Deaf education causing a long struggle that continues today. Yes, painful.
People say that history repeats itself. No, actually, it is ongoing, not repeating. There may be different faces, appearances, or approaches, but the painful history goes on. And when it goes on like that, we cannot heal. We experience constant oppression and triggers. For example, the horribly painful impact of Milan 1880 has been ongoing, especially for Deaf people who are white. It is different for Black Deaf schools because they did not use ASL, they used “sign language”, which was different than ASL. Their sign language was taught to them by slaves stolen from Africa. Milan 1880 did not impact Black Deaf children because they were considered unworthy of education. For white Deaf people, they endured the pain of ASL being removed from their education, from their schools, and taught only through Oralism. The Black Deaf people endured wrongful assumptions of not being smart, not being worthy, and neglect as a result. Both suffered a lot of pain yet their pain are different. Have they had a chance to sit down together to share their pains and figure how to heal each other? Not yet.
Remember the Women’s Voting Rights movement during the 1920’s? Congratulations to them for achieving that! That time, some Deaf people also achieved the same rights. Yes, their rights depended on what kind of education they had. However, many Deaf women still did not vote back then. Now, remember Black women were not able to vote until 1934. And Native-Americans? Not until about 1932. Now, Deaf women? Some Deaf women, white ones, if they were smart enough and had access to written English, they did get the rights to vote. But Deaf women of color couldn’t, and Deaf Native-American women couldn’t. Where is the collective healing for this injustice among Deaf people? Each of the different Deaf groups was too busy struggling with their issues in isolation. We need the time to get together and heal collectively and examine our histories together.
Remember the Dawes Act, the forced assimilation of Native Americans to follow the “American way” denying their clothes, hair traditions, and language? Ouch. Native Americans were here on this land first. I would like to share about my grandmother like I shared yesterday. She was from the Peede tribe of South Carolina. She forbade us to deal with any Native American issues in the family, nothing at all! I was rather perplexed by this. She told me that if I wanted to survive, I need to identify as fully Black, and not mention the native American part of me at all. Because I was actually Black myself, I was able to do that, but my grandmother, who did not have any Black in her, labeled herself Negro in order to get a job, cleaning toilets. She denied her native American identity for this survival purpose. My father’s grandfather was a white man whose family owned slaves. When he fell in love with my grandmother, he was demoted to being a quadroon, which meant of mixed races, despite his being fully Irish. He lost his land, his Irish tradition, and became a “brown man”. It was not a positive experience for him and his wife; there were also a lot of sexual violence, so my family couldn’t touch that part of history.
My point was that my grandmother’s experience was truly horrible, thus her reason for denying her native American identity. Her name, heritage. etc. were also removed from her while I was able to use my name. I can go to school; I was not forced to assimilate into the white American system. I can wear African clothes. My grandmother couldn’t touch upon her native American identity at all. Now, what about Deaf Native-American children? Where is the space for them?
I am not trying to bring back a sore issue, but a few years ago a Deaf Native-American from California contacted me and wanted to discuss the Bear Hunt statue issue. I was like “Oh no. Honestly, it is not my experience, so I am not the right person to work with you.” He responded, “But you are strong!” It was a difficult situation for us.
Two problems I see here with this situation. One was that the Deaf Native-American children, who are now adults, never had the opportunity for healing dialogues. They experienced heartbreak and oppression over and over whenever they saw the Bear Hunt statue. “What can I do?” they ask. I do not have the answer for them. I can however answer and provide support for my Black Deaf community because I grew up in it, learning and getting my experiences from it. But with Deaf Native Americans, I honestly don’t know. I did my best dialoguing with them. However, I made a mistake too when I share my experiences with them, it ended up I had hurt them more, making them feeling worse. As a result, did we have collective healing? Nope, not yet.
Remember NAD? It was founded and operated exclusively by white men and eventually women became part of it. Meanwhile, the Black Deaf and Native-American Deaf people did not trust NAD. When Black Deaf people were finally allowed to be part of NAD (AFTER Deaf white women got in), they were expected to follow the NAD mission and vision that didn’t really accompany their Black Deaf experience and identity. Nevertheless, they wanted the white Deaf people to accept them, so they went ahead and became involved in NAD. It was not easy. A lot of struggle and conflict ensued. Finally, they founded their own separate organization, the National Black Deaf Advocates (NBDA). Did both organizations meet and try to heal that painful history? Not yet. They are still hurting. Many older members of NBDA, still traumatized, don’t want to have anything to do with NAD, which I completely understand, and NAD has been trying to figure how to accommodate the different needs and perspectives. They both definitely need to sit down and truly dialogue with each other in order to heal.
Now, let’s talk about the Deaf school, where my heart is. I work at TSD (Texas School for the Deaf), oh sorry, I meant TAS (Together All in Solidarity). I mix up the fingerspelling between them because my grandchild goes to TSD, so I finger spell TSD a lot. Anyway, through my work with TAS, I face this issue concerning ASL, that language I cherish. Not all children at the Deaf school has equal access to ASL. For example, through TAS, I tutor ASL to a student, a Black boy on a one-to-one basis. I wondered why one-on-one ASL tutoring with him and found out that white kids at school refuse to play with him. Children learn ASL incidentally though socialization and play, that’s how language and culture are learned, right? Because the boy was Black and considered “dirty” and untouchable, the other children didn’t allow the incidental learning opportunities, that’s why he’s having the ASL tutoring one-on-one. That was his painful experience.
As for myself and my experience, I enrolled at Gallaudet University in 1995. Before that, I went to St. Mary’s School for the Deaf in Buffalo, New York. Also, I was an oral education product before I attended SMSD. When I arrived SMSD, did I understand ASL? No. I understood something. I used English-like signing. I believed it was the real language. I viewed ASL negatively. Looking back on that time, I am embarrassed about my attitude then. However, the point is back then, as I proceeded with my education at the school, I felt others thinking “What’s that Black girl doing here at the school?” so I kept my distance from them. I cherished my Black skin. I thought it was the most beautiful color on this earth but I also needed to socialize and learn ASL from them. How do I disregard the racism and learn ASL? I can’t, because racism hurts.
Finally, in my junior year, I learned to comprehend ASL but not yet how to produce it well. When I entered Gallaudet in 1995, I tried to fit in several different groups – Black oralists, Black fluent signers (who didn’t have a strong Black identity), lesbians, and alumni of my school. I had a hard time fitting in and I left Gallaudet. From 1996 to 2008. I socialized mainly with Black Deaf people. My idea about ASL continued to form mainly through interpreters. During that time my signing was Black ASL. Then I was identified with Usher’s Syndrome which was a new struggle for me. I didn’t want the option of returning to Gallaudet, but it was better than learning through interpreters in mainstreamed college settings. This time, Gallaudet started practicing bilingual education, including use of videos as part of formal ASL education. I learned ASL a lot more. But there was this one thing. When I worked with interpreters, they sometimes asked me to sign “normal.” I wonder, what does “normal” look like? For me, all the years before I returned to Gallaudet, using Black ASL was my normal. Nevertheless, as I took Deaf Studies courses and learned ASL, white people began to appreciate my signing and said that now I sign like a normal Deaf person. That hurts.
I thought about majoring in Deaf Studies because I wanted to help improve the Deaf community. I did consider the possibility of a PhD in Deaf history. There could be more research and collections on various Deaf histories such as the Deaf Asians who experienced the US concentration camps. It happened, but nobody was talking about it. We had Deaf slave owners but nobody was talking about it. There were other Deaf historical stuff that nobody was talking about. Yes, we have Oralism as one of our histories. Maybe a most painful history, but it is ONE OF SEVERAL HISTORIES. There are other histories that have impacted the Deaf community and yet nobody is talking about them. If we do not talk about them, we cannot move on. We can’t heal.
Healing begins with uncomfortable feelings that we must discuss openly about. Some people who are perceived as being Black or Lesbian may say they are not black or a lesbian, and we need to allow that. However, we can’t make comments like “Well, my friend is black, and he disagrees with you.” For example, one thing that bothers me so much is when hearing people ask me why don’t I speak, I respond, “Number one, I don’t need to, and number two, because I don’t want to. I feel it is not fair to use speech that benefits hearing people, and not myself.” And the hearing person rebuts “But you know I have one deaf friend who thinks speech is better.” I argue back, “That’s only ONE deaf person, and that person represents ALL Deaf people? No.”
Each of you represent something. Each of you have a story. Each of you have a background. We need to listen to each of you. We cannot say “I have this friend who is Deaf-Blind and they could do this, think this way, etc.” and make assumptions on what other Deaf-Blind people need. We must pay attention to an individual and make accommodations based on that individual. Collective Community means including all: people of color, disabled, Deaf-blind, all of them.
How? Begin with LUL – Listening for Understanding and Love. When you interact with and listen to someone, and you are distracted by a blocking thought, put it on hold, and truly listen. I guarantee that you may feel awkward realizing you never thought of such and such. But listen to truly understand. Don’t listen just to find problems and say “oh wait. oh wait.” No, LISTEN TO UNDERSTAND. Love and cherish the process itself. Sometimes people will disagree with you. For example, I would sit and converse with the KKK. Will I like it? No. Yet sometimes I need to understand why. Does it mean I agree with them? No. Strangely, black families do teach them. They also want the families to accept them. I do understand that human need. Do I like the concept of KKK? No, but I recognize they are humans.
LUL ends with Love. Love this process. Love the experience that you learn. You don’t have to love others. No need for me to love the KKK but I need to love what I learn from them. Love the changes. Love the anguish inside that may be one of the most uncomfortable feelings you may have which I think is the most beautiful feeling a human being can have.
Another thing to work from: A. C. T.
A for Accountability. People may claim that others are responsible for this and that. No. Start with myself. I am accountable for my own actions. If I oppress a disabled person, I apologize. What should I do? I would read on this subject. I would discuss with friends who walk like myself. I would not ask the person who is disabled how to improve myself. This imposes more work on them. I would not want hearing people to impose more work on me. It’s their responsibility. Hearing people created audism, not us. Likewise, we caused ableism, not people who are disabled. We with privileges cause the problems. Audism is hearing people’s problem. And we cause problems in our own community for disabled Deaf people.
So, the accountability in A.C.T. is about how I improve myself so that I do not hurt others. Improve how I talk so I don’t hurt others. Figure how I can apply this to Deaf schools. Many children with disabilities or children of color are being taken out of the Deaf schools. No, they need to be there to stay. We need to work together to assure this.
When my one-year-old Deaf grandchild was born, I didn’t know he was Deaf. His mother kept it a secret but when hearing tests confirmed he was Deaf, she immediately expressed serious concern about the racism at the Deaf school. She struggled with her child’s school placement: mainstreamed education or at the Deaf school. Public schools are better in teaching positive Black cultural identity and information, but they cause language deprivation and there is audism while Deaf schools provide wonderful ASL development but the racism there hurts. This is why we all need to work together to resolve this.
The “C” in A.C.T. comes from an African term meaning “Come together” that expresses the idea of sitting together, putting biases aside and asking what can we do. Better yet, admit I need to improve, and ask for help. Ask those who are like us. Do not ask others who are less privileged to help you.
The “T” in A. C. T. stands for TODAY, not tomorrow. A.C.T with L.U.L is beautiful.
We can stop history. Maybe not tonight. We can talk about it. Some people may not be comfortable yet. That’s fine. There are others who are more comfortable and ready to talk. Sit with them. Set up community town halls. I don’t recommend doing it online. Host an event at your house. Set up time for conversation at your house. Set it up at church. Many Black people attend church as our cultural centers, not just to celebrate God.
I see many beautiful faces here. Yet, I do look forward to seeing more Deaf-blind people, more Deaf people of color and other identities being involved here. Remember Deaf community is not just “Deaf”, it’s all of us. We need to redefine what Deaf means, what Deaf looks like, and who are the Deaf. [picks up her cane] Even when I have this cane, I am still Deaf. Even when I have brown skin, I am still Deaf. I am Deaf AND have brown skin, AND am Deaf-Blind, a disabled person. From now on, your responsibility will be to be involved with intersectionality, which means layers of oppressions that one person may experience. We need to examine and understand that more. Audism is one of the oppressions. Many of you do experience several kinds of oppression all at once. What do we do about it? Examine and cherish the process. Get together with others, talk about it with your friends and allies. Deaf history has shown us that Deaf people have been very strong in their persistence. Use that damn same energy to have conversations with each other.