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Reviewed by:
  • Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson
  • Glenn B. Anderson (bio)
Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson, by Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007, 304 pp., hardcover, $27.50. ISBN 978-0-8078-3155-7)

This book is a major contribution to professional literature on American Deaf culture and history. It provides a powerful, yet engaging analysis of the intersections of societal attitudes and institutional policies and practices prevalent in the South during the early-twentieth century and how they impacted the life of one individual—an African American Deaf man named Junius Wilson.

Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner shed light on topics that are rarely discussed in most academic studies on Deaf culture and history. These topics include the following: societal attitudes and discrimination due to race and disability, segregated schooling for deaf students resulting in linguistic and social isolation from the larger Deaf community, the impact of Jim Crow laws, entrenched poverty, the eugenics movement, and involuntary institutionalization in a segregated mental facility.

Around the turn of the twentieth century (1908), Junius Wilson was born and lived his early childhood with his family in a small town (Castle Hayne) near Wilmington, North Carolina. By the time he was seven years old, he was attending North Carolina's residential school for the Colored Deaf and Blind in Raleigh. Within the school environs, Wilson and his peers shared a common identity and language [End Page 375] (a form of Black Southern sign language known by some as Raleigh Sign Language). It was a language not known by those outside of the school.

At the age of sixteen, the school's predominately white administrators expelled Wilson for what appears to have been a minor infraction. Though the reasons for his expulsion are not clear, the circumstances apparently involved the inability of his teachers to locate him for an extended period of time during a field trip to the state fair with his classmates.

From that point forward following his expulsion from school, the authors present a disturbing picture of discrimination, abuse, and neglect covering over seven decades of Wilson's life. His return to his home community, where neither his family nor his neighbors could communicate with him, perhaps led to his being alienated and perceived as a social outcast. Furthermore, given the entrenched poverty prevalent in his home community, he was probably also perceived as a "burden" and the family did not have the means to care for him.

About a year later at age seventeen, he was accused of attempted rape by a neighbor's husband. Through their meticulous research, the authors uncovered what may have been a long buried "truth" underlying the neighbor's actions. They indicate it may have been a benevolent attempt by the neighbor to pass on the care and responsibility of Wilson to the state. Following his arrest, Wilson never stood trial nor was he charged with the crime. Perhaps the reasons were, at least in part, because of preconceived assumptions of the judge and local law enforcement officials that Wilson was illiterate and "dangerous" due to his not having understandable speech and a tendency to occasionally stare and make vocal noises. While he was never formally diagnosed as such, he was judged insane by the court and committed to the criminal ward of the state hospital for the colored insane. Further contributing to the court's decision was the apparent widespread perpetuation of negative stereotypes of Black men as savages and rapists, reinforced at the time through the showing of the movie Birth of a Nation in Wilmington, the site of Wilson's incarceration. Moreover, the movie played before packed houses the same week in which Wilson was eventually sentenced. [End Page 376]

Whereas Black Americans, particularly in the South, were especially vulnerable to unfettered racism manifested through racial violence such as public lynchings and the prevalence of a rigid caste system perpetuated through Jim Crow laws, less publicized was the impact of the eugenics movement, particularly on those placed in mental institutions. According to Alexander (2007), between 1907 and 1940, more than 18, 000 sterilizations of individuals deemed as "defective" took place in mental...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6263
Print ISSN
0302-1475
Pages
pp. 375-378
Launched on MUSE
2009-04-22
Open Access
No
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