Christopher D. Johnson
The goal of this post on the 34th birthday of Mr. Johnson is to present his intersectional experiences to everyone here as a Black Deaf man who survived negligence from the educational system in Georgia to become a Black deaf educator, community leader, and activist. As one of Mr. Johnson’s favorite author notes, “Advocates of black self-determination have always prioritized education linking it with the development of critical consciousness and critical thinking (p. 44).” Mr. Johnson’s journey from being unwilling to learn ASL to welcoming ASL into his life is not easy to share nor will it be for each of you to read. CJ hopes that his story serves as an inspiration for those who are in the space of less exposure to sign language, history and culture of Black Deaf people and to spark an interest in encouraging reading as well as remaining actively involved in the signing community. Enjoy!
Christopher D. Johnson grew up in the western part of Georgia, near the Alabama line. He lived around several farms, full of farm animals. Christopher’s father currently works in a warehouse while his mother is a retired schoolteacher. Before working in the school system, his mother used to work in Atlanta, but had to give up the job to work closer to Mr. Johnson’s assigned school to support his medical and educational needs. Christopher’s immediate family members had minimal knowledge of sign language, which resulted in him having to adopt a survival mentality when it came to language and communication because Christopher had not been taught ASL.
Mr. Johnson was enrolled in a hearing-only oriented school with designated Sign Language interpreters. However, they lacked proficiency in American Sign Language (ASL) and signed based on the English Language. This type of sign language was called Signing Exact English (SEE). His social life in school was limited because Christopher did not have peers with whom he could relate to emotionally or socially through sign language nor did he know how to interpret ASL. Christopher’s K-12 classroom experiences lacked the accessibility needed to educate a deaf and/or hard-of-hearing student for the following reasons. Culturally, the majority of his educators were hearing, white, and mostly women. There was a marked scarcity of Black teachers and interpreters, male or female, which served to add not only a hearing, but a cultural barrier to Christopher’s educational path. According to Hairston & Smith, Black deaf educators and scholars, “The education of Black deaf children must rely on concerned teachers, parents, and others who vigorously demand quality educational programs and maximum results for each individual child (p. 30).”
Early on in his educational journey, Mr. Johnson was ultimately at risk of not even being able to read or write. Subsequently, Christopher was placed in a one-on-one placement course with a non-certified deaf educator who was a former sign language interpreter in elementary school. His parents did not know how to help Christopher get the educational access he needed. They were not familiar with advocacy organizations, resources nor were they well-versed in educational law or regulations for deaf and hard of hearing students.
At the beginning of most academic years, Christopher was often pulled out of classes for extensive speech therapy. This educational isolation fostered his desire to develop proficiency in ASL as he knew that the path to success later in life was in jeopardy if he didn’t. This experience reminded Christopher of bell hooks who said, “Black folks, especially those who lived in a segregated world where access to education was not simple, who were not educated, we're predisposed to be suspicious of educated black people (p. 43),” One example growing up that would always serve to remind Christopher about the need to learn ASL and subsequently started his journey to becoming a competent adult in a hearing dominant world came from his family.
“There was a marked scarcity of Black teachers and interpreters, male or female, which served to add not only a hearing, but a cultural barrier to Christopher’s educational path.”
Christopher vividly recalled a time when his younger brother and parents poured their hearts into trying to support him as he tried to complete his writing and reading comprehension assignments. Christopher did not understand the written English and he was also not able to understand the spoken English and gestures from his family. Although his family tried their best, Christopher still was unable to complete the assignments himself. It was at this moment of frustration that Christopher realized that he desperately needed to learn ASL and be in an environment where he could not only gather information in print but to have it thoroughly explained in ASL. Once again, Mr. Johnson’s experience reminded him of the following quote from bell hooks, “The image of a boy reading was particularly important to include because it is clear that this society sends black male children the message that they do not need to be readers (p. 40).” Christopher’s accessibility challenges continued. Mr. Johnson remembered having IEP meetings where his mother made all of the decisions for him. As his secondary education came to a close without sufficient ASL exposure and lacking proficiency in ASL, Christopher continued on a rocky journey as he decided to enter community college. Ultimately, without full instruction in ASL, not only was Mr. Johnson’s educational future in jeopardy, his identity as a black deaf male was as well.
Christopher stayed for one year at a community college before transferring to the University of West Georgia (UWG). He profusely resisted sign language interpreters in his college courses because he wanted his privacy. Christopher also felt they would draw attention from hearing peers in the wrong way. He requested Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) because it was subtle and Christopher thought that he could rely on more factual information. CART is a great accessibility tool that provides live captioning as interpreters speak into a microphone that is connected to a television that shows the words on the screen for deaf or hard of hearing people to read. CART can be used during workshops, conferences and any speaking engagements to ensure deaf, deafblind, and hard of hearing participants receive full understanding through bilingualism.
Christopher first majored in Biology. But he dropped out of the Biology program because he was unable to understand the interpreters for college-level interpreting. Eventually, Christopher received several low grades in some classes and then received a letter warning him that he would be placed on academic probation for the next semester. During that time, Christopher enrolled in the Computer Science program. He managed to maintain good grades but had to drop out again because he couldn't comprehend the English-version packet from the CART without a sign language interpreter. Truth be told, although he was interested in the readings, he could not keep up with the fast-paced courses.
Mr. Johnson decided to change majors a third time to Sports Management after meeting a former UWG basketball player. His younger brother was his main supporter who had helped him build his confidence with his writing and reading skills, but unfortunately, the support Christopher hoped for did not last. The former UWG basketball player became his supportive friend and took over for Christopher’s brother by assisting him becoming his study buddy for the remaining two years of his undergraduate career.
“They assumed that because Christopher could speak, they didn’t need to accommodate him- the prejudice was real.”
During his senior year, Christopher interned at Georgia Tech in Atlanta in the hospitality department on weekends during the home games. He was unable to thrive because he did not have access to communication and people were ignorant and not accommodating of his needs. For example, people would scream into his hearing aids, “Testing, testing, can you hear me?” to test his hearing ability. Mr. Johnson tended to laugh it off (and shrug) because it was exhausting having to explain to numerous individuals that he was deaf. Not one person was knowledgeable enough or willing to write down on paper what they said. They assumed that because Christopher could speak, they didn’t need to accommodate him- the prejudice was real.
Not only did Christopher become adept in ASL, he learned more about his culture as a Black deaf man, and his language, Black ASL.
Eventually, Christopher graduated with a degree in Sport Management from UWG. What an experience! Christopher felt that his experience was exemplified in the words of Black Deaf scholars and authors Hairston & Smith, “Today, a basic education is a necessity. It is viewed by many as a barrier breaker, a key to open doors that would otherwise be closed (p.27).”
After graduating, he moved to Tennessee to work at a deaf school and improve his awareness of deaf culture. During his time at Tennessee School for the Deaf - Knoxville he earned the sign name “CJ” from one of his students. Christopher worked at the Tennessee School for the Deaf for two years where he founded a social club called, “Cup of Wisdom.” The purpose of the club was to promote social maturity, to teach youth how to host fundraiser events and to build a signing community by inviting ASL learners from local community colleges and universities to network with the students and hone their cultural and signing competency. In 2018, Christopher applied to and was accepted to attend graduate school at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
When Christopher moved to Washington, D.C, at the age of thirty, he was overwhelmed by the cultural shock of seeing a majority of deaf people signing. It made him eager to become open to learning ASL and its grammatical structure because of the positive influence and not extensive criticism he received from peers. Once again the words of Hairston & Smith epitomized his experience, ”When speaking of the education of Black deaf children, it is necessary to take a backward look in order to understand the present situation (p.9).” Having a rather complex identity, Christopher’s communication modality varied depending who is part of the social group. At times, he felt more confident using spoken language while at other times Christopher was more comfortable using sign language. Christopher often switched from ASL to using SimCom, and used spoken English off campus.
In the two years of being at Gallaudet university, Christopher excelled in learning ASL. Not only did Christopher become adept in ASL, he learned more about his culture as a Black deaf man, and his language, Black ASL. Armed with this new knowledge, Mr. Johnson was able to excel in the classroom as well as in the community. He was able to advocate for his fellow peers and became a mentor to deaf and hard of hearing youth who had not encountered a Black man who was also Deaf and accomplished.
After obtaining his Master’s Degree, Mr. Johnson landed a full-time job teaching ASL at the University of Minnesota-Duluth at the Duluth campus. Being hired by this university was a milestone since Christopher was the first Black Deaf Professor hired.
After one year at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Mr. Johnson returned to Washington, DC. In the fall of 2021, the COVID-19 global pandemic was still catastrophic for the world and impacted the Deaf community in unique ways. You know most of us had to wear masks, right? There was a situation where Christopher encountered a hearing man at a bar. Out of the blue, after seeing Christopher’s interaction with the bartender while wearing a mask, this man asked, “oh, you can’t hear? Are you hard-of-hearing or at least have some hearing ability?” Christopher was confused at the moment and responded that he was profoundly deaf. Then the man asked, “how can you speak so well for a deaf person?” This experience inspired Mr. Johnson to raise awareness about and the benefits of teaching ASL online in the midst of ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
CJ is extremely thankful to have had these experiences in his lifetime and to be a part of the change needed in educational spaces and within the community for Black Deaf people to thrive. Christopher acknowledges and agrees with Manny Scott that, “Empirical educators should position themselves to familiarize themselves with each student's culture and important occurrences in their lives as they happen and, investing in global education, be intentional in finding other ways to learn about your students’ world.” Mr. Johnson looks forward to another great year of learning, overcoming obstacles and growth. That includes strengthening his vision, core values and mission in life going forward.
Hooks, B. (2004). We real cool: Black men and masculinity. Routledge.
Smith, L. & Hairston, E. (1983). Black and deaf in america: are we that different. T.J. Publishers.
Scott, M. (2017). Even on your worst day you can be a student's best hope. ASCD