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  • Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson
  • John Vickrey Van Cleve (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)

Language is essential to American jurisprudence. When defendants lack the ability to receive and convey language, they cannot be tried fairly, and yet they may represent a threat to the public safety. Donald Lang's story, the subject of the 1979 movie Dummy, exemplifies this dilemma. Deaf and without command of a written or a signed language, he was accused in 1965 of murdering a Chicago prostitute. He was found incompetent to stand trial, however, because he could not communicate with his deaf lawyer, Lowell Myers, or testify on his own behalf. The state then committed him to a mental institution, but Myers successfully challenged this placement. Subsequently, the Illinois Department of Mental Health tried to teach Lang American Sign Language, though he remained confined. In 1970 the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that Lang could not be held indefinitely without being convicted of a crime. By then, five years after the first incident, the state's primary witness against Lang had died, and Lang still did not know ASL. Illinois gave up and released Lang back into the community. A few months later he was charged with murdering another prostitute. The Illinois Supreme Court eventually determined, in a complex decision based on the specific facts of these events, that Lang could be held until he was no longer a threat to the [End Page 367] community or until he had learned to communicate well enough to contribute to his own defense. However, no such legal wrangling and agonized reasoning surrounded the initial incarceration and castration of another deaf African American, Junius Wilson, as Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner write in this tragic tale of deafness, language, race, and family.

Junius Wilson was born in 1908 into an impoverished African American family in the small community of Castle Hayne, near Wilmington, North Carolina. Burch and Joyner eloquently evoke the horrific life faced by African Americans in that part of the South in the early twentieth century, as whites reasserted their dominance with riots, lynchings, and routine intimidation. The authors also describe the specifics of Wilson's personal and family situation. Wilson's father, Sydney, and his male friends in Castle Hayne earned money by cutting wood for the railroad company. Chief among these friends was a close neighbor, Arthur Smith Sr., whose son, Arthur Jr., also a woodcutter, would play a key role in determining Wilson's future.

Wilson was discovered to be deaf in his early childhood and learned neither speech nor a sign language in his home environment. When he reached the mandatory school attendance age of eight, he was sent to the North Carolina School for the Colored Blind and Deaf in Raleigh, a residential institution supervised by a nonsigning, hearing white man who championed oralism, refused to hire deaf instructors, and emphasized vocational education over academic preparation for black students. As late as 1932, Burch and Joyner write, the Raleigh school had not graduated any students. Most apparently either withdrew or were dismissed because of alleged feeblemindedness, but Wilson was expelled for another reason. During a school field trip to the Negro State Fair in Raleigh in 1924, sixteen-year-old Wilson ran away and did not return to school for two nights and one day. The administration dismissed him for this act of rebellion.

It is not clear what Wilson learned in his nearly eight years at the Raleigh institution. When he was an adult, he could read and write only a few words. Burch and Joyner do not mention any particular acquired vocational skills. He did not speak intelligibly or speechread. He did learn some sign language, but it was a dialect peculiar to the Raleigh school's students. Decades after his expulsion, sympathetic, [End Page 368] fluent, native deaf users of ASL were able to communicate with Wilson only in a limited way. They could neither understand with certainty what he tried to convey, nor, apparently, could he understand them...


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