LOS ANGELES — The phrase begins with four fingers cut across the brow, followed by two thumbs drawn up like breath from navel to chest, ending with a fierce tug with two hands down from the chin into fists toward the heart.
Black. Life. Cherish.
This is how Harold Foxx and many other black deaf Angelenos sign “Black Lives Matter,” though it is by no means a universal translation. As little as two years ago, it may have been signed quite differently. Even now, many still end the phrase with the gesture for “worthy” or “important,” which looks like two “OK” signs held together at mid-chest and arched up and around to meet again at the top of an invisible ring.
But the death of George Floyd and the national uprising that has followed caused many black deaf Americans to once again reconsider the phrase. As with everything in American Sign — a language that many hearing people have been exposed to regularly since the outbreak of the coronavirus — nuance shows up in translation.
“It’s hard to describe in English … but they most certainly have different meaning,” said Jonathan Webb, the president of the national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, who lives in Anaheim and grew up signing with the black deaf community in Ferguson, Mo. “To me, the sign ‘important’ is more a concept that resides in the head. The sign that happens on the chin (“cherish”), there’s an emotional context.”
Indeed, in the seven years since “Black Lives Matter” first entered the popular lexicon, the competing ASL translations have come to convey far more than three words could ever do in English. For many, they reflect a painful reality: Though the coronavirus pandemic and police violence both impact black deaf Americans disproportionately, the interpreters they rely on for information about those twin crises are often not “as clear and understandable” to them as federal law has long promised.
“It’s how they process and convey the message and how they translate — not just the wording but the meaning behind it, the tone,” said Storm Smith, a native Angeleno and a producer at the ad agency BBDO Los Angeles. “We need to see all the different levels of information, especially during this time.”
Actress Natasha Ofili was among scores of deaf students who massed in Hollywood three decades ago to celebrate the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, groundbreaking civil rights legislation that guaranteed their right to equal access, including qualified interpreters like the ones who now populate news conferences from City Hall to the state Capitol.
But on a recent visit to her mother in Sun Valley, she suddenly found herself mesmerized anew by the sign language interpreter on TV. Something about the way she signed just felt different.
“I’m not sure her name — she’s a black woman with braids,” Ofili said. “She seems to match whatever she’s interpreting. And that’s the key. The person who’s interpreting should be matching the speaker, their tone, their affect. She’s just so enjoyable to watch.”
That interpreter’s name is Rorri Burton. She learned sign language as a child, from friends — a far cry from the collegiate training programs where most ASL interpreters learn their trade, but a common career path for the tiny minority who are people of color, and the even smaller cohort who are black.
Since Burton began appearing at L.A. County news briefings in March, many hearing viewers have declared themselves “obsessed” with her distinctive style, while others have mocked it. But to deaf locals, and particularly black deaf Angelenos like Ofili, it is a reminder of an ongoing struggle for equity, representation and authenticity in ASL, a language deeply scarred by racism and exclusion.
“The deaf community sees themselves as one world, one body, but there are so many subcultures and intersectionalities within that,” Ofili said. “Black deaf people have rights to be successful and rights to education and rights to be themselves and express themselves authentically. “
But success, education and even expression must often be negotiated through white, hearing interpreters, who make up close to 90% of the workforce, reports show. Whenever Ofili goes out on an audition, visits the doctor or sits for an interview, it is nearly always a white woman who acts as her voice for the hearing world.
“Sometimes white interpreters are not fully confident or comfortable or even trained enough on how to culturally mediate,” wrote Rezenet Moges-Riedel, a lecturer in the ASL Linguistics and Deaf Cultures Program at Cal State Long Beach and a deaf scholar of sign language. “It can be frustrating.”
For hearing people, the degree to which race inflects sign can be hard to grasp. Many see ASL as mimed English, with a five-fingered lexicon and syntax. (There is a distinct variety of ASL called Black American Sign Language, which is likewise mischaracterized as a gestured Black English.) Any cultural dimension is often assumed to be superficial.
But the ADA recognizes American sign as a separate language, “dissimilar from English” in its structure and vocabulary. It also nods to the state’s outsize role in teaching sign language to deaf children, 90% of whom are born to hearing parents and learn sign primarily in public school.
What it doesn’t do is ensure that all deaf children’s schools are good. The deep racial inequalities that plague public education, and the communal ingenuity to adapt to them, shape many deaf Americans’ natural language.
“Most of the time, as black deaf people, we come from mainstream programs,” rather than specialized programs for the deaf, said Foxx, a black deaf comedian who performs often with Deaf West Theatre and the Groundlings. “ASL is not as prevalent in our schools.”
Though the law requires all public schools to offer “equitable access to communication,” the nature and quality of that access can vary widely. Publicly funded early interventions are not uniform, and the first kindergarten readiness standards in the country to promote ASL for deaf children were adopted just five years ago in California.
“I’ve spoken to so many black deaf people who are like, ‘I understand you, but I don’t understand that other interpreter,’” Burton said. Interpreting for the county, “my concern was with more marginalized deaf people, and by that I mean black and brown deaf people who have traditionally had less access to education.”
L.A.’s many deaf immigrants, whose sign languages are distinct, also struggle to comprehend classically trained interpreters’ more erudite ASL.
When hearing children of deaf adults become sign language interpreters, they often do better than those who trained as adults, having grown up with the language. But the gold standard is certified deaf interpreters like Nic Zapko, who has risen to prominence in her work for Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, and Linda Bove, the beloved deaf actress best known for her 31-year run on “Sesame Street.”
“I’m thinking about kids who are 2, 3, 4 and even older than that who have parents who don’t sign,” said the actress, who worked alongside a black deaf interpreter signing for the CNN/Sesame Street Town Hall on Racism on Saturday. “You have kids going, ‘What’d they say, Mommy?’ And they have a parent who can’t sign to them to explain.”
To hearing officials responsible to federal accessibility law, such concerns were all but imperceptible. Interpreters, too, had struggled to articulate them.
Then came the death of George Floyd.
“It was amazing to actually see a black woman interpreter on screen during the memorial service — that was really very smart,” said Smith, who recently made a video with Ofili about the unique fear black deaf people feel in interactions with police. “To see that, that’s intense, it really is. It hits the heart.”
In the space of a few hours between Sunday and Monday, Burton went from marching in the street to signing about Floyd’s death for L.A. County Health Commissioner Barbara Ferrer. Webb got an email from Mayor Eric Garcetti’s communications office Tuesday seeking his service, as well as “any guidance or recommendations” he might have.
Meanwhile, a TikTok of an apparently white hearing teen signing Black Lives Matter sparked minor outrage in deaf social media circles, where black deaf users blasted the translation of “matter” as wrong.
Yet the debate over what’s correct is still far from settled.
For some, like Dallas-based interpreter Deon Harrell, “important” is simply more accurate.
“This sign can be readily interpreted into ‘crucial,’ ‘signifiant,’ or ‘vital,’” said Harrell, who is black. “I think we have to be clear in that lexical equivalence.”
But for many others, “important”/”cherish” have evolved from competing interpretations into complementary synonyms, used by many black signers to convey different shades of meaning. Both Webb and Ofili use them this way — “cherish” with certain people and contexts, and “important” with others.
Webb said he often finds himself defaulting to “important” when interpreting white speakers, and “cherish” when signing for black ones. When speaking for himself as a black man, he signs “cherish” exclusively.
Michael Agyin, a black deaf activist in Compton, said “cherish” reflects a particular sense of vulnerability among black deaf people.
“It translates better for deaf people,” Agyin wrote. “We feel the same way a hearing black person feels, on top (of) being deaf too, which makes things two times as hard and two times scarier dealing with the police.”
Studies suggest that between one third and one half of the people killed by police in the U.S. every year are disabled. (The majority of those people are also nonwhite.) Deaf people are at greater risk because they often cannot understand spoken commands and need their hands and bodies to communicate.
“I worked as security at a club, I was on a 15-minute break and I decided to go to my car to rest. Suddenly somebody’s banging on my window — I look up, and it’s the police,” Foxx recalled. “They grabbed me. I tried to gesture, I tried to point to my ear, you know, I’m deaf. And I can vocalize a little bit, but in that moment you’re overwhelmed. It could have been much worse.”
That’s why he and others say that while “important” is technically correct, “cherish” often feels more accurate.
“In this #BLM context, we’re stating that our lives are so precious, valuable and irreplaceable,” wrote Moges-Riedel, the professor.
But American sign contains another subtlety, one freighted with meaning but invisible to most hearing viewers. When Butler signs “black,”, she uses four fingers. This acts as a kind of emphatic for a word that is more commonly signed with just one finger.
As in English, the one-finger sign for “black” can be either a color or an identity marker. But the four finger sign is only ever used for the latter. It means Black, and its usage is highly specific.
“If I’m signing for someone who is talking about the black community, the richness of the black community, then I’m going to use the ‘B’ hand shape for Black,” Webb explained. “If the person who’s talking about the black community is white, I’m not going to use the ‘B’ hand shape, because that’s not a sign for white people. That’s a sign that’s used for black folks.”
For Foxx, the B-shape is intrinsic to the meaning of the phrase.
“That’s all Black people, the entire race,” he said.
Since she began working for the county in March, Burton has quietly signed Black — a word used almost exclusively by one of the most marginalized communities in America — thousands of times on TV.
“That was a recent discussion Rorri and I had,” interpreter Neil Cordova wrote in a message on Instagram. “During the COVID-19 press conferences, they give mortality rate by race and ethnicity. The hearing person says African Americans. When that is said, Rorri signs Black,” with four fingers.
At one level, that’s Burton’s ethos: African American is a complex sign that’s changed a lot over time; black is one toddlers know.
At another, it’s a reflection of how the information she’s charged with conveying is also intensely personal.
“At the press conference (Monday) there was quite a bit that was said regarding the Black Lives Matter protest and the murder of George Floyd,” Burton said. “It’s hard to maintain your professionalism when something affects you so deeply.”
Yet that’s precisely what Smith and Foxx and Agyin and Ofili find so valuable about work like hers, and why they feel it’s so different to be watching black interpreters now. For many deaf people — though far from all — a caption can convey information. But a good sign language interpreter also conveys affect, including whether the speaker is sincere. As with the B-sign Burton uses, the true meaning is often imperceptible to hearing people.
“With what’s happening right now, we really need to put an emphasis on Black people. We’re talking about this collective of black deaf people — our lives are precious,” Foxx, the comedian, said. “When we sign ‘matter,’ it’s holding on,” both in the meaning and in the mechanics of the sign. “We’re not trying to lose our people. We’re here to protect them.”
He signed it again: Four fingers saluting across the forehead for — Black — thumbs dragged up like a cry from the chest — life — ending with a grip of two fists at the base of his chin, as though clutching a jewel — cherish.
“Black lives matter.”
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