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  • From Pity to Pride: Growing Up Deaf in the Old South
  • Mark Stern
From Pity to Pride: Growing Up Deaf in the Old South. By Hannah Joyner ( Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2004. xii + 210 pp. $49.95).

Over the past generation, a major task of social history has been to tell the stories of groups that had historically been silent. Certainly, no group better fits this definition than Deaf persons. Not only have Deaf members of the popular classes been excluded from history, but even members of social elites who were hearing impaired have found it difficult to have their experience included in history.

From Pity to Pride represents an important contribution to overcoming this barrier. Hannah Joyner chooses to focus on the experience of a narrow band of Deaf persons—members of white Southern elites before the Civil War—as a means of tracing out some of the common themes in the life experience of Deaf Americans.

Certainly few books begin with such a jolt. The acknowledgement begins: "In February of 1993, I had surgery for a non-cancerous brain tumor. During the surgery my acoustic-vestibular nerve was cut. I lost hearing in one ear and my balance was impaired." Joyner goes on to explain that in the wake of these experiences, her past interest in the history of 'discrimination and resistance' became linked to the history of Deaf persons. This interest was encouraged by a stint on the faculty of Gallaudet University, a college designed for Deaf students. [End Page 1223]

Her health experience and immersion in Deaf culture at Gallaudet gives From Pity to Pride its distinctive voice. On the one hand, Ms. Joyner views the history of Deaf Southerners through the lens of contemporary views of Deaf culture—especially its distinctive means of communication and social interactions. On the other hand, the book grows out of her interest unearthing sources that would allow her to tell a broad story of the development of that distinctive culture.

Yet, barriers exist. As the author points out in her Note on Sources, there are a number of problems that prevent this history from being written. Most obviously, many Deaf Americans never were able to write their own stories. Even where documentary evidence exists, archives' classification systems often conceal relevant material. What sources there are on Deaf persons is often written by hearing people. In short, the distinctive Deaf culture that contemporary social scientists have able to document appears—at the moment—to be unreachable by historians.

Frustrated in this broader goal, Ms. Joyner has turned to a more focused purpose, examining how the distinctive culture of the antebellum South influenced how hearing people viewed Deaf people and describing the social and institutional world within which Deaf Southerners lived. The book is organized about the intersection of a set of individuals and a set of themes that are roughly organized chronologically. The efforts of one John Washington—as reported in an 1841 medical journal—to cure his deafness is used as a means of exploring the medical profession's stance on the problem. The Tillinghurst family of North Carolina provides an opportunity to explore the difficult choices families faced in deciding how to address Deaf children's condition. Jefferson Trist's school career is used as a means of exploring the range of educational opportunities open to Deaf students.

Layered over these individual biographies is the distinctive role of the South in influencing life experience. Most clearly, the color line assured that the story of Deaf whites and Deaf African Americans would never cross. Joyner suggests as well that the world the slaveholders made included a 'culture of paternalism and dependency in the South [that] codified a rigid system of oppression and hierarchy that left little room for self-determination for Deaf southerners."(p.6) Perhaps the clearest indication of this culture was the dominance of 'pity' as the dominant Southern reaction to deafness and opposition to reform impulses in the South because of their association with abolitionism. Although Joyner makes a plausible argument that this is the case, the absence of systematic material on the North makes it difficult to assess this line of...


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