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Friday, February 29, 2008

Junius Wilson

I just wanted to put a few thoughts down about the reading i went to last night while i have a couple of minutes. I'll post more thoughts occasionally over the next few weeks as i work my way through this book.

There are any number of Americas that we live in, separated by time, geography, class, race. I think part of the process of being American is discovering and telling those stories that break through those boundaries and help us to get that the America we may have grown up in is not the only one. These stories, especially when they excavate a previously unexplored past, invariably stray from the accepted narrative. They're often painful to tell or to hear. Sometimes, probably often, they work better as fiction.

One of the most powerful stories i read growing up was the one about Randle Patrick McMurphy*, told by Ken Kesey in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. This was such a powerful tale of other Americas that not even Hollywood could butcher it.

We have a common narrative of the 1920s. Flappers, Babe Ruth, stock market booms, good times.

Junius Wilson didn't live in that America. The events and historical pressures that converged to shape and guide his life were probably beyond his comprehension. I want to look at one single facet, and try to isolate it from the rest. I don't know how successful that viewpoint can be. But.

When he was eight, in 1916, Junius Wilson was sent to Raleigh to attend a school for blind and deaf African Americans. At one time, 20 or 25 years prior, most of the educators and administrators at the school were deaf, and children were instructed in American Sign Language. That was no longer the case when Junius got to the school. There were several reasons for that, some specific to conditions in Raleigh, North Carolina at the time, some related to the larger conflicts about how best to educate the deaf.

Now, my connection to Deaf culture is peripheral at best, and mostly in the past. So i really have nothing to add to that conversation. If you want to know more about those conflicts, i encourage you to look elsewhere. The point that struck me is that by the time Junius got to the school, the instructors and administrators were all hearing people with no knowledge of ASL. And the ongoing generations of students had continued to sign among themselves. The result was a separate language, sufficiently different from ASL that, by the time Junius was a student there, he learned a sign language, called Raleigh Signs, spoken nowhere else in the world.

Meaning, when he left the school, his ability to communicate with anyone else was virtually non-existent.

Think about that for a few minutes, and try to imagine life in that America.

Thanks to Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner for telling this story, and coming to Durham last night to speak and sign about it.

* - Thinking more about it, OFOTCN is as much the story of Chief Bromden as it is of McMurphy. Which is the tale of yet another America.


  • Jesus Christ on a crutch.

    I remember a news story a couple years ago about a guy who'd been in a Russian hospital since WWII (when he wasn't in a prison camp) because no one could recognize the eastern European language he spoke.


    By Blogger Joseph H., at 1:13 PM  

  • Ah -- longer ago than I thought: World War II POW Finally Goes Home.

    By Blogger Joseph H., at 5:20 PM  

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