New York: Nakia Smith writes on her TikTok account, "English is not my first language," although the 22-year-old grew up in Texas. The young African American woman is deaf from birth and she uses the little-known dialect: Black American Sign Language to promote her big online.

In her video clips, she tells 400,000 followers about the differences between her language and Standard American Sign Language (ASL).

Among other things, she signs with one hand, uses more space, and uses more facial expressions.

Smith has told his followers that in order to sign a “paper” in ASL, a person mimics a sheet of paper by tapping the left hand with the right hand, while the latter moves forward. In Black American Symbolism, the person socks both toes at shoulder level from the outside.

"Black ASL came from ASL but there's more seasoning. It's more emotionally involved," she told AFP, referring to her brother's role as an interpreter.

"Growing up I learned to sign by looking at the older people in my family. Then when I went to school my friends didn't understand what I was signing. I realized that BASL is unique and people want to put it there to learn," she said. Said.

Great Variety

These differences were also noted decades ago by Caroline McCaxil, a professor at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., one of the largest deaf and hard of hearing institutions in the world.

As a child in Alabama, she first learned sign language at a school for deaf black children, going to study at a school for white children once the separation was over.

"Even though the schools were only 10 minutes away from each other, the sign they used was very different."

Elementary schools for the deaf and hearing in the United States date back to the early 1800s, but in 17 southern states and Washington, D.C., separate schools for black students were established by the turn of the century. In these 18 establishments, there is a different medium of communication from ASL through organically developed signals.

These schools lasted for about 70 years, until disintegration, which was too long to allow the emergence of dialect with its own characteristics.

For her book, The Hidden Treasure interviews dozens of deaf African Americans to list the features of the Black ASL MC Cacasil dialect.

Thanks to the geographical distance of the communities, the American black sign language is very rich, and some signs differ from one part of the American South to another. Some remember the acute lack of resources in their schools and the uneducated teachers who did not teach them the full variety of standard American sign language.

“We were black students repeating, we lacked diversity, our sign language was very limited,” recalls Pamela Baldwin, who, during and after school integration in Arkansas, in an interview with McCaskill.

The lack of resources explains the informality of the dialect which is based on a series of different communication elements rather than the sole use of pre-established cues.

Emotional vs ... Robotic

"Black people sign more rhythmically, using more style, using words that liberate our emotions more," said a former deaf black student in Texas during a conversation posted online by McCaskill as part of his research.

"We match the scent. I don't mean white people should be offended, but they don't lack traces, they have no tone, it's a robotic signature that doesn't show emotion."

Today, Black American Sign Language survives primarily by passing from pay to pay, as in the case of Smith, who learned it from his grandfather. This makes it almost impossible to estimate how many people actually speak it, McCaskill said.

He said, "We have an old black deaf person who is going through old age, but he is very alive, wants to preserve the language of the younger generation."

McCaskill opened the country's first Black Deaf Study Center in 2020 with colleagues at Gallaudet, a juncture in the history and culture of deaf African Americans.

She hopes her center will serve as the basis for the preservation of the bid, but understands the importance of statistics like Nakia Smith and her popularity on social media.

"Her videos went viral and reached different pockets of the community, which is great."

For his part, Smith wants more visibility for sign language, standard or black, and wants to get involved in the entertainment industry to help bring about change.