Opinions & Features

‘My hands are loud enough’ – Deaf TikToker goes viral for teaching Black American Sign Language

Black Deaf families have existed long before Nakia Charmay Smith took to TikTok to share videos on their dialect. The Black American Sign Language (BASL) is a dialect of the traditional American Sign Language (ASL) and so they have some similarities. What made Smith’s videos on TikTok go viral was how she and her family with hereditary deafness educated her followers on the history of BASL.

Smith is from a four-generation family of people who are deaf. The 22-year-old is bringing a much-needed representation that is lacking among Black deaf people as she creates awareness about her community and their history one lesson at a time on the video-sharing platform.

The TikToker focuses on American Sign Language (ASL) and BASL while educating people on how best to interact with people of the deaf community.

Her videos have raked over a million views on Tik Tok and over 900,000 views on Twitter, and they usually feature her family, particularly Jake, her deaf 95-year-old grandfather. Jake encourages her to continue sharing insights from their community with the world and the responses have been majorly positive.

“I felt like a lot of people didn’t’ know about BASL until my video went viral. They were really curious and wanted to learn more about BASL and history. I told my grandfather that the video went viral, and he said, ‘Keep it going’,” Smith said.

A recent partnership with Netflix gives more insight into how BASL came about. The giant video streaming platform reached out to Smith after her viral TikTok video for the project and now thanks to Smith, many now know that BASL was created because of segregated schools.

“It was developed by Black deaf people in the 1800s and 1900s during segregation. For reference, the first American school for the deaf was created in 1817 but only started admitting Black students in 1952. So as a result, Black communities had a different means of language socialization, and BASL was born,” she explained.

Experts in sign language have lauded the young college student for her revolutionary work which encourages people to learn to sign because it is prudent to have culturally relevant sign language interpreters across all areas.

For years, Black people have received unwavering criticism for not using the ‘standardized’ ASL. The Black deaf community has been fighting for years to get BASL recognized just like it was with African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

“It is important that we recognize and celebrate the diverse deaf communities and the variations within American Sign Language,” said Jan Withers, Director of North Carolina DHHS’ Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. “Understanding and appreciating Black ASL helps to create an inclusive environment.” 

When asked what the biggest difference between the two dialects was, Smith said, “BASL got seasoning.”

Smith is playing her part by teaching BASL while preserving Black deaf stories in the process. She records her speech therapy sessions with her brother, increasing people’s understanding of what it means to be Black and deaf. 

Ama Nunoo

Ama Nunoo is an optimist. She believes every situation has its upside no matter how devastating some may be. She has a Master's degree in International Multimedia Journalism from the University of Kent's Centre for Journalism and a Bachelor's in English and Linguistics.

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