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Chapter 3 Deaf Carnivals as Centers of Culture ! CARNIVALS, FESTIVALS, fairs, and conventions are a cornerstone of present-day Deaf culture. These gatherings are essential, for sign language—and thus its art forms—requires face-to-face interaction . Unless people congregate in a fairly substantial group, little ASL literature can materialize. Because Deaf people are scattered all over the country, carnival makes possible the dissemination of vernacular storytelling, recorded works on videotape, and texts in English. At these festive gatherings the culture manifests itself in force, a condition necessary to generate literature and the potential for later literature. Carnival is therefore a prerequisite of a healthy Deaf literature, whether that entails texts in English, sign language adaptations, vernacular art forms, or new ASL creations. At carnival Deaf Americans feel free to be themselves and to produce and distribute their literature. For this minority culture, usually dispersed throughout the majority culture, carnival is the site of communal celebration and liberation. Similarly, Mikhail Bakhtin notes, fairs in the Middle Ages “were the second life of the 32 975 Gup DAL Chap 03 7/17/00 7:43 PM Page 32 people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality, and abundance.”1 At other times, the people were answerable to feudal lords and masters; only during fairs, harvest festivals, and other festivities was some degree of latitude possible , both in their behavior and in their production of popular art forms. The medieval populace eagerly awaited and participated in these frequent festivals and the literature that they generated; Deaf Americans, who at other times work and live within mainstream society, look forward just as eagerly to festival time when they can engage in their vernacular discourse and literature. Indeed, “the festival is at the heart of the culture and communication of deaf communities everywhere.”2 This observation in On the Green, the faculty/staff publication at Gallaudet University, was inspired by the wildly popular and successful Deaf Way: An International Festival and Conference on the Language, Culture, and History of Deaf People, which was held July 9–14, 1989, in Washington, D.C. The granddaddy of all festivals, the Deaf Way was both a convention and festival (a “confest”). This chapter focuses in large part on this particular confest because it displays so many different aspects of Deaf American carnival. Gallaudet University, which sponsored Deaf Way, scheduled over 500 presentations and workshops at the Omni Shoreham Hotel and numerous artistic events and performances on campus. For a week, activities stretched from early morning to late evening; there were films, poster talks, exhibits, dramatic productions, workshops , booths, art displays, fashion, roving mimes and clowns, and more. Dancers, storytellers, mimes, and poets entertained in the evening while fairgoers relaxed, socialized, and lined up for Italian, Mexican, and Chinese food, as well as hot dogs and burgers. The 5,000 registrants included students, scholars, psychologists, researchers, linguists, scientists, sociologists, educators, and parents of deaf children from the United States and seventy-five other countries, with interpreters on hand to facilitate communication.3 A couple of thousand additional, unofficial participants hung around the lobby of the Omni Shoreham and the Gallaudet campus throughout the festival—chatting, reminiscing, and engaging in extensive storytelling. Deaf Carnivals 33 975 Gup DAL Chap 03 7/17/00 7:43 PM Page 33 After and during the festival, countless informal social gatherings took place as Deaf Americans and international visitors congregated and participated in many rhetorical pleasures such as storytelling . Festivals: Mobile Centers of Community Gatherings like the Deaf Way are not simply social events or workrelated conferences but have cultural and psychological significance . Deaf gatherings provide a focal point and a cultural center for a widely dispersed people, whose orientation (visual) and mode of communication (sign language) differ from those of mainstream society. Here Deaf Americans find community, ease of communication , and their own rhetorical traditions. Just as the viability of medieval culture was linked to the medieval fair, so too is today’s festival crucial to the survival of Deaf culture.4 In the Middle Ages, fairs provided occasions for community activities of both town and church, for commerce and trade, and for education. At a time when schooling was not widespread and travel of any distance was rare, the fair was itself an educational experience for the lower classes. It also offered popular art forms, public or official rhetoric, and entertainment. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White describe it as “a kind of educative spectacle: a...


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