I took some sign language classes about twenty years ago and had some interaction with the deaf community at the time, but when the classes ended, I didn’t keep it up. I remember little more than the American Sign Language (ASL) alphabet, plus a few things like “more,” “thank you,” and “finished,” which I learned again when my sister started using basic signs with her kids before they could talk.

I’m brushing up on my vocabulary over at the ASL Browser. For a quick alphabet tutorial, though, this YouTube video can get you started. (Warning: You’ll want to press pause after each letter so you can take your time to learn each sign!)

This week, September 21-27, is Deaf Awareness Week. With that in mind, I want to highlight a couple of books from UNC Press about deaf individuals dealing with a hearing world.

Junius Wilson (1908-2001) spent 76 years at a state mental hospital in Goldsboro, North Carolina, including 6 in the criminal ward. He had never been declared insane by a medical professional or found guilty of any criminal charge. But he was deaf and black in the Jim Crow South. Unspeakable is the story of his life.

The Washington Post said, “The overwhelming injustice done to [Wilson] is mind-boggling, and Burch and Joyner have told his story with thoroughness and passion.”

Authors Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner appeared on WUNC’s The State of Things last December. You can listen to the podcast at the SOT site.

Christopher Krentz uses deafness as an angle of approach to identity formation in 19th-century American literature. He demonstrates that deaf and hearing authors used writing to explore their similarities and differences, trying to work out the invisible boundary, analogous to Du Bois’s color line, that Krentz calls the “hearing line.” He discusses writing by deaf authors as well as hearing authors including James Fenimore Cooper, Lydia Huntley Sigourney, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain.