Black deaf community works to preserve, celebrate Black American Sign Language

Ana Rivera Image
Tuesday, April 6, 2021
Black deaf community works to preserve little-known sign language
BASL was passed down for generations as a way to segregate Black deaf students -- now, the Black deaf community is taking ownership of a sign language they are proud to call their own.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- For Daisy Rivenbark, Black American Sign Language is much more than a language. It's a part of who she is.

"I am extremely proud. I can't explain it. I can't hide it. I can't deny it. I mean, it's my language. It's who I am," said Rivenbark, NCDHHS Deaf Services Specialist.

But when she moved to North Carolina from Washington D.C., she couldn't understand why signing to other deaf people was sometimes a challenge.

"I struggled. I'm like, 'why can't you understand me? I don't understand why you can't understand me?' The interpreters in D.C., they understand me just fine. But over the years I realize, oh, I sign just a little different," Rivenbark said.

Rivenbark said Black American Sign Language -- or BASL -- is a little different for everyone, and it's more than just using different signs than what's used in American Sign Language. It's a certain swag and an intersection of language and culture.

"We sign pretty much big, instead of smaller signing space. We sign big and very expressive," Rivenbark explained. "We show power in our signs. That's kind of how we show our pride and how we walk."

That's why finding others in her community has been so important.

"I feel like if we ignore who we are, then we have lost ourselves in society because society says it's wrong," said Valeria McMillan, a sign language interpreter.

McMillan, who is friends with Rivenbark, said BASL is a product of educational segregation. Something her mother - who is deaf - experienced firsthand.

"We struggled academic-wise, how to read and write back and forth because nobody had any formal education to teach deaf students," said Lillian Russell McMillan, Valerie's mother.

Through that struggle, BASL was created. Now groups in the Triangle are working to celebrate and preserve the language.

"Using Black ASL is a different language and it really informs the community what natural language can look like," said Derek Gambrell, president of the North Carolina Deaf Black Advocates.

Gambrell said they focus on programming that fosters and protects the language and the people in their community.

"BASL is a form of communication and a sense of identity that entails history and our culture. That should be preserved as part of our identity," Gambrell said.

Passed down for generations as a way to segregate Black deaf students -- now, the Black deaf community is taking ownership of a language they are proud to call their own.

"BASL is our language and it reflects our culture, and it's who we are," Rivenbark said.|

The North Carolina Black Deaf Advocates are hosting an informational panel about Black ASL on April 30. If you'd like to learn more, visit