Carolyn McCaskill: You know how some people may talk loud? I sign loud. So that's one of the features—a larger signing space. Two-handed signing is also one of the features. In mainstream ASL, someone might just sign with one hand, but in black ASL, two-handed signs are also okay. And then there is repetition. If you sign, “I’m getting out of here,” you will sign it not just once, but twice—you might even sign it three times, for emphasis and also for clarification purposes. So we incorporate our culture from black English in our signing.
O’Donnell: How does black ASL strengthen the bond you two share?
McCaskill: Franklin and I would often have these conversations about black ASL and its unique features. It was really interesting learning about his family dynamic—he’s from a deaf family—in terms of their language use. We have to preserve our history, we have to preserve our language, and we have to disseminate that information, because there is a rich history that we want the wider public to know of. It’s something that we are proud of.
O’Donnell: Franklin, when did you first meet Dr. McCaskill?
Franklin Jones Jr.: In my first year at Gallaudet, I took Dr. McCaskill’s deaf-studies class. And then I took another class with her called “Dynamics of Oppression.” And that really broadened my understanding of everything that I've gone through, and everything that she's gone through, as well as how much she has contributed to our community. Up until that point I'd never had a deaf black teacher in my life. And the fact that we had a black deaf woman, a researcher, studying black ASL, who has a doctorate degree teaching this class—that really motivated me.
O’Donnell: How did you approach being a mentor to Franklin when he was still unsure about whether he wanted to go to college?
McCaskill: I knew I wanted him to finish his education, because I knew what his dreams were. I also knew who he was. I knew his background. He's from South Carolina, he's from a deaf family, and as a man who is black, deaf, and gay, it is all too rare to be successful with those intersectional identities. As a result, I knew it was really important for him to persevere and accomplish his goals. I didn't want him to give up.
O’Donnell: How did you encourage him when it seemed like he might not graduate?
McCaskill: I made sure to make myself available to meet with him—we kept in contact and he would stop by my office. We would talk, and I would really listen to whatever his concerns were, his frustrations. Some of them were financial. He wasn't able to pay for Gallaudet tuition and living expenses out of pocket. So I would have conversations with him along the lines of "Remember that scholarship?,” and I made sure he applied. And he went on to get the scholarship he applied for—the Linwood Smith Scholarship, set up to support black deaf men.