Dr. Carolyn McCaskill: “Never give up!”

“Never give up! “It takes hard work to be successful, but don’t give up. Keep your eyes on the prize. As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Carolyn D. McCaskill, Ph.D. Dr. Carolyn D. McCaskill, a leading scholar of Black Deaf […]

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“Never give up! “It takes hard work to be successful, but don’t give up. Keep your eyes on the prize.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Carolyn D. McCaskill, Ph.D.

Dr. Carolyn D. McCaskill, a leading scholar of Black Deaf history and culture and Black American Sign Language, is a professor in the Department of Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. She is also the founding director of the university’s Center for Black Deaf Studies, and co-author of the seminal book The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure (Gallaudet University Press, 2011), the first socio-historical and linguistic study of Black ASL.

Dr. McCaskill, a native of Mobile, Alabama, is the oldest of five children born to a single mother. She attended public schools, then the Alabama School for Negro Deaf. After the state desegregated its schools, she transferred to the Alabama School for the Deaf for high school and graduated in 1972. She holds bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Gallaudet, and has been a member of its faculty since 1996.

Dr. McCaskill is world-renowned for her decades of pioneering work to bring recognition to Black American Sign Language. She is a dynamic presenter and has been interviewed by some of the nation’s best known media outlets, including The Washington Post and Good Morning America. In 2020, Dr. McCaskill was named Gallaudet’s Distinguished Faculty Member of the Year, and in 2021, she was selected as a member of the 2022 class of the Alabama School for the Deaf Hall of Fame.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in the Roger Williams Housing Projects of Mobile, Alabama, as the oldest of five children born to a single mother. My mother, Janice McCaskill, who is now 90 years old, raised us to strive for the best. She preached the importance of education throughout our childhood.

My sister Jackie and I were born about 14 months apart and were diagnosed with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, apparently of genetic origin. I was five, and she was six. So, I became deaf at age five. I attended public school from the first to the 7th grade without communication access. I did not have a sign language interpreter in the classroom. I would sit in the front row and try to lipread my teachers.

Another sister, Angela, started to lose her hearing as a teenager. I also have a hearing sister and a hearing brother.

Due to frustration with this system, I transferred to the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind in Talladega. I was there from 1964 to 1968. This is where I learned Black American Sign Language (Black ASL or BASL) and Deaf culture. After segregation ended, I moved to the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind and graduated from there in 1972. I entered Gallaudet College (now University) in the fall of 1972, and as they say, the rest is history.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to act or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

While I was a student at the Alabama School for the Deaf, I became an inveterate bookworm. I love reading different kinds of books. One book that I recall reading was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. This book was about her struggle with racism as a child. In the book, young Maya described her experience with racism and segregation, and how it affected her self-esteem. I can relate because I grew up both Black and Deaf, a double whammy, and a woman, a triple whammy.

I immersed myself in books and the endless opportunities of reading and learning. I have read nearly all of Maya Angelou’s works. I also read Roots: The Saga of an American Family, by Alex Haley; and books by James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison. I had a special interest in reading books by Black Deaf authors, including Connie Briscoe, Mary Herring Wright (especially Sounds Like Home: Growing Up Black and Deaf in the South, which I related to strongly); Linwood Smith, and Ernest Hairston. The book Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America, by Jack R. Gannon, a white Deaf man, also resonated for me.

In my view, reading is the key to knowledge, and knowledge is power.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I started my doctoral studies at one school, but encountered issues with obtaining appropriate support services. Also, my originally assigned academic advisor, with whom I had an excellent relationship, became ill and went on medical leave. As a result, I transferred from that school into Gallaudet’s doctoral program in special education administration.

I struggled with my decision to leave my original program and transfer to Gallaudet. I already had two degrees from Gallaudet, and I wanted my doctorate to be from a different school. Fortunately, the transition was a smooth one, and in the process, I learned that “When one door closes, another door opens.” The decision was one of the best in my life, as it opened many doors of opportunities. It was the seed for which my Black ASL work was born.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

For a long time, it was a goal of mine to ensure the rich history, culture, and experience of the Black Deaf community was not only archived but shared and celebrated with future generations. Well over a decade ago, my colleagues and I knew that there was a significant opportunity to research and archive the history of Black ASL in a way that had yet to be done. In 2011, after extensive research, travel to multiple states and cities, and many incredible first-person interviews, we published The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure. I am proud to say that it is the first-ever sociohistorical and linguistic study of Black ASL. And I am even prouder to have had the opportunity to join my co-authors on this unique scholarly body of work: Dr. Robert Bayley, Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Davis; Dr. Joseph Hill, Associate Professor of American Sign Language and Interpreting Education at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf; and Dr. Ceil Lucas, Professor Emerita of Linguistics at Gallaudet University. I am also grateful for our collaboration on The Hidden Treasure with Roxanne Dummett, Pamela Baldwin, and Randall Hogue.

For me personally, I have always wanted to use the platform of The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL to share our history. We know more about the history of others, but they do not know about our history, community, culture, and language. I hope that by sharing our story, people will learn that we have a rich history, community, culture, and language and that the vibrant Black Deaf community has and will continue to make an impact.

In many ways, the social impact of The Hidden Treasure has only just begun. It has been a large part of the impetus for the recent establishment of the Center for Black Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University, where I serve as the founding director. The Center is the only place in the world dedicated to honoring Black Deaf history, Black Deaf contributions, and Black Deaf culture.

And The Hidden Treasure also has me contemplating my next project: the first-ever dictionary of Black ASL!

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

I think the most unique stories in the book were about Texas School for the Blind, Colored Deaf and the Virginia School for the Colored Deaf. Each was unique in its own way.

The Texas legislature created the Asylum for Deaf, Dumb, Blind Colored Youth in 1887 in Austin, Texas. William Holland, a former slave, was appointed as the school’s first superintendent. The name was changed several times, finally to Blind, Deaf and Orphan School (BDO), colloquially as Blind Deaf Orphan. Holland also founded Prairie View A&M University, a historically black university (HBCU). He founded a State Colored Orphans Home. It was burned to the ground. The orphaned students were hearing. The hearing and deaf students were educated together. The hearing students were taught Deaf culture and ASL, and many of them became sign language interpreters. Former students at this school still congregate for reunions from time to time.

The Virginia School for the Colored Deaf was established in 1909 by a white Deaf man named William Ritter. After he graduated from Gallaudet College, he returned home in Hampton, Virginia. He had a housekeeper who had a Deaf child. The housekeeper was so impressed with him. It touched his heart as he was concerned about the education of Black Deaf people. The school closed in 2008, and its students either transferred to the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind in Staunton or to mainstream settings. The Black ASL Team was fortunate to interview former students who remembered William Ritter.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

When I was in graduate school working on my doctoral degree, I had an “aha moment” with one of my professors, Dr. Roslyn “Roz” Rosen. I told her about my school experience at Alabama School for the Negro Deaf. She was shocked and told me that I had to write about it. This inspired me to do research and chose the title of my dissertation, “The Education of Black Deaf Americans during the 20th Century: Policy Implications for Administrators in Deaf Schools.”

For my bachelor’s degree, I majored in psychology with a minor in social work. Dr. Yerker Andersson, who taught sociology, as one of my professors. He would call me to his office to chat. He would always tell me to stay strong and be proud of myself as a Black Deaf woman. I never forgot him and his advice. Later, Dr. Andersson was asked to be the founding chair of Gallaudet’s new Department of Deaf Studies, and he hired me as a faculty member. When he passed away in 2003, his wife asked me to say a few words at his memorial services. I basically summed it up with Maya Angelou’s quotation. “I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Dr. Yerker made me feel that I was worthy and had made contributions in the field of Deaf education. As I noted earlier, when he retired, he hired me to fill his position. It was truly an honor, and I remember him every day.

Dr. Glenn B. Anderson was another excellent role model. I remember a conversation with him. He said that it was lonely at the top. I thought to myself that he was the second Black Deaf person to earn his Ph.D. degree but he was lonely. There were very few Black Deaf Americans with Ph.D. degrees. In 2005, I became the eighth. I’m happy to say there are now about 30 known Black Deaf Americans with Ph.D. degrees, and Dr. Anderson is no longer lonely at the top.

My sister Angela, who also holds a Ph.D. degree from Gallaudet, has compiled the life stories of most of the Black Deaf people with earned doctoral degrees. Her booklet is in its second edition.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

In this case, I must share a name. I am profoundly inspired by the Miller family of Washington, D.C. Louise B. Miller had three Deaf sons and a hearing daughter. Because of segregation in the late 1940s and early 1950s, she and her husband were forced to send her Deaf sons to schools in Baltimore and Philadelphia, rather than to the Kendall School for the Deaf on the Gallaudet campus.

Louise B. Miller fought for the right of her sons and other Black Deaf children to be educated on Kendall Green. She filed suit against the District of Columbia Board of Education, and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in her favor. Kendall School for the Deaf created a separate “division” for Black Deaf students. Two years later, the Supreme Court of the United States of America ended segregation in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Kendall School then became fully integrated.

I nominated Louise B. Miller for a posthumous honorary degree from Gallaudet. In May 2021, the Gallaudet University Board of Trustees awarded her this degree and presented it to her family. Plans are also underway for a fitting memorial on the Gallaudet campus so that Louise Miller’s legacy will be remembered forever.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Simply stated: accessibility, equal opportunity, and eradicating racism. All of these things must be done from the ground up, not as an afterthought.

To give a personal example, it goes without saying that Black churches are a pillar of the Black community. However, it is challenging for Black Deaf people to be fully involved. Many churches do not offer interpreting services for Black Deaf people. I attend Reid Temple A.M.E. Church in Glenn Dale, Maryland. Fortunately, they provide interpreting at several of their services.

NAACP is another entity that I want to see become more inclusive. NAACP does not provide interpreting services for their programs, even as they advocate for equality. Black Deaf people are a minority within a minority. NAACP has yet to recognize the vast amount of talent within our communities. There are brilliant Black Deaf teachers, artists, business owners, pastors, medical professionals, attorneys, etc., but they do not all feel that NAACP represents them. This needs to change.

How do you define “leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is being able to inspire others. Leadership is taking risks and making tough decisions. Leadership is activism and advocacy. Leadership is getting down in the trenches and working with the people whom you lead.

In my doctoral program, one of my professors said to keep your suitcase parked near your door. This means to not let your position title define who you are because you are only passing through. Our Lord has other plans for you, en route to greater destinations! So, be humble; be grateful.

I also learned that it is important to be kind and compassionate with people because these same people will be there when you fall.

What are your “five things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. “If at first, you don’t succeed, try again.” The Black ASL Team applied for a National Science Foundation grant. We were denied the first two times. We reapplied and were approved the third time.
  2. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Make the best of it even when things may be sour.
  3. “Don’t forget to smell the roses.” Especially during the pandemic, I had to remind myself of this often because I delve so deeply into my work. I had to take a break from work.
  4. As I wrote in my answer to an earlier question, “Knowledge is power.” My mother often reminded me and my siblings of this. She said education was the key to better job opportunities. She wanted us to do better in life than she did. I am proud to say that all five of us graduated from college; one sibling earned a master’s degree, and two of us earned Ph.D. degrees. We were the first in our family to graduate from college.
  5. “Never give up! “It takes hard work to be successful, but don’t give up. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite “Life Lessons Quote is “The view is beautiful at the top.” I remember that my high school senior class went on a field trip with a former teacher named Houston Dutton. We were excited to get out of the classroom. We excitedly boarded the school bus, thinking we were going to have fun. We arrived at a park. Mr. Dutton, smiling, told us to follow him as he began to climb up a hill. I thought to myself, “Why are we climbing a hill?” Mr. Dutton was smiling and telling us to come on. It was not easy; sometimes I would slide down, climb back up, slide down again until I finally reached the top, out of breath and wondering what in the world this white man was up to. Mr. Dutton smiled at us when we all arrived, then said, “This is life!” I was dumbfounded at his signing, “LIFE”! The view was indeed beautiful once we reached the top, but the struggle to get there was not pretty. And that was the life lesson, one that I have carried with me for nearly 50 years. The racism, hardships, and struggle that I endured to get my BA, MA and Ph.D. degrees, and to succeed as a teacher and researcher, were not always a pretty view. I can say that I now have a nice view because of my perseverance. For that, I thank Mr. Dutton.

Is there a person in the world, or in the United States, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I have always wanted to meet Oprah Winfrey. In fact, I wrote her a letter back in 1989. I feel that she had, and still has, a great venue in which to share our story. Also, I hoped that she would consider including some of our finest Black Deaf actors/actresses in films that she promotes.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can follow the Center for Black Deaf Studies website, learn more about The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure, and learn more about Black American Sign Language.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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