In many ways, Gallaudet University looks like any other liberal-arts college in America: Brick buildings and leafy walkways are abundant on its campus in Washington, D.C. But at Gallaudet, American Sign Language (ASL) is the lingua franca, and creating space for deaf culture a main priority. Walking to class, students sign in rapid-fire bursts of kinetic language.

Franklin Jones Jr. is one of those students. Though he is thriving now—having gotten his undergraduate degree and now attending graduate school at the university—his path has been a difficult one. In fact, Franklin wasn’t sure college was for him at all. But Dr. Carolyn McCaskill, a professor of deaf studies at Gallaudet who researches the history and structure of black ASL, worked with Franklin to make sure he reached graduation. Not only did he do that, but he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in ASL, linguistics, and deaf studies, and he was selected to deliver remarks at his graduation ceremony.

For The Atlantic’s series on mentorship, “On The Shoulders Of Giants,” I spoke with Jones Jr. and McCaskill about their bond, the experience of being black and deaf in America, and how mentorship can promote inclusion.


B.R.J. O’Donnell: Can you talk about what black ASL is particularly well-suited to capturing and communicating?

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.

O’Donnell: How critical do you think it is for students to have a mentor like the one you’ve been to Franklin?

McCaskill: I think it's absolutely critical that students have that sense of, “I can approach someone here for help, and that individual will be willing to listen, and be willing to give me counsel and invest in me.” I think that that’s so important for all students to experience, deaf or otherwise.

O’Donnell: How did it feel to see Franklin as the undergraduate speaker at graduation this year?

McCaskill: Wonderful, really wonderful. I have watched him grow. I remember when he first arrived at Gallaudet. He had a few years where he really struggled here. He talked about actually leaving the university, and he did for a time. So when I watched him give that commencement speech, it was hard to watch without crying, actually. I was so proud of him.

O’Donnell: Franklin, what did you want to impart during your speech?

Jones Jr.: I wanted to communicate to everyone that a black deaf man can graduate, and that there is no shame in struggling. Struggling is okay, and you can still be proud. Everyone needs support, and I wanted to share that message, and I wanted to show people that I was able to make it, because often times I've seen many black deaf men that just don't graduate. There is not enough support in place for these students. I was lucky enough to have that support from people like Dr. McCaskill.

O’Donnell: Dr. McCaskill, what are your hopes for Franklin this year, as he approaches his master's degree?

McCaskill: You know, my hopes for Franklin are that he just continues on this trajectory. And also, I want him to go for his Ph.D. Right now in America, we have 14 black, deaf Americans with Ph.D.s—14. That’s a very small number. We do have a few in the pipeline, so that number is shifting, and I'd like Franklin to help.