TikToker Nakia Smith Teaches The World About Black American Sign Language — And We Love It

Photo: YouTube 
Nakia Smith

Personally, when I thought about American Sign Language, I never thought there were two very different versions of it.

There’s the version that white people do, and then the version done by Black people, though the latter is rarely ever taught or mentioned in schools across the country. 

My first introduction to Black American Sign Language was through 22-year-old TikToker, Nakia Smith.

Her informative videos have allowed people to learn about the differences in which Black deaf people sign versus how deaf white people sign. 

Smith comes from a four-generation family of deaf people and has decided to use her experience to create a plethora of videos on TikTok of conversations with her family, and the videos have been racking up millions of views.

In a video for Netflix, Nakia Smith explained the tumultuous history of Black American Sign Language, saying it originated in the 1800s because schools for the deaf were segregated. 

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Smith also commented on the first American school for the deaf, which was built in 1817, though the school didn’t admit Black people until 1952. And that segregation caused Black people to come up with their own version of sign language.

The biggest difference between BASL and ASL is that BASL is usually signed with both hands, while ASL is using only one.

Words usually found within AAVE (African American Vernacular English) are also signed differently under BASL.

The difference between BASL and ASL almost reminds me of everyday language that white and Black people use. 

While speaking around other Black people, we have different words and phrases that we use around each other. But, when around a group of white people, we tend to code switch, and almost put on a “white voice.”

So, it’s very interesting to note how that behavior carries over into the deaf community.

Nakia Smith’s most prominent guest on her TikTok page is her grandfather, who will often sign with Smith, much to the enjoyment of her followers.

@itscharmay

Cool right? very old fashioned signs from 1887! My grandfather & his friends, who he went to school with, still use those signs!

♬ original sound - Nakia Smith

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“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 explained in her Netflix interview.

It’s always amazing to see Black people trending and going viral for educating and bringing up topics that are never taught in schools or mentioned in history books. 

For so long, Black history hasn't been told correctly, or even at all. We’ve been omitted from significant periods in history, or glossed over in classrooms.

Which is why I find joy in Nakia Smith, her resilience to keep talking about BASL, and her mission to inform everyone that Black deaf people exist, and have existed for many years.

Black deaf people have played a significant part in history, and will continue to do so.

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Nia Tipton is a writer living in Chicago. She covers pop culture, social justice issues, and trending topics. Follow her on Instagram.