Q & A: Carolyn McCaskill

Dr. Carolyn McCaskill is an advocate for the deaf African-American community. She hails from the land of crimson tide, Alabama. Although she has a Ph.D, she was only recently promoted to full-time professor of ASL and Deaf Studies here at Gallaudet University. Dr. McCaskill is a unique person because she is a black deaf woman with a Ph. D and had endured some degrees of racism, sexism, and audism in her life. All in all, Dr. Carolyn McCaskill is a very successful deaf African-American woman not only because of her contributions to the deaf community, but also of what she had experienced in her life.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

I lost my hearing at the age of 5 and attended the Mobile Public School System in Mobile, Alabama until the 7th grade. After attending a summer program at the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf, I fell in love with learning a new language and a new culture, ASL and deaf culture.

I convinced my mom to allow my deaf sister, Jackie, and I to transfer to the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf & Blind (ASNDB) in Talladega. It wasn’t easy for my mom as the school was located approximately 500 miles from my hometown. My mother decided to do it so that we could obtain a better education. She saw that I was unhappy in public school.

What was your family like? Any brothers or sisters?

My family has always been very close. I am the oldest of 5 siblings. The first three of us are deaf, while the last two are hearing. Both of my parents were hearing but my father is now deceased. My mother was essentially a single mother and raised us single-handedly. She instilled in us the value of obtaining an education in order to succeed in the world.

All five of us graduated from college with at least a Bachelor’s degree. I have a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate degree. My younger sister, Angela McCaskill has a Bachelor’s degree from Alabama State University. Her Master’s in Social Work is from Howard University. Angela is the first Black deaf woman to obtain a Doctorate degree from Gallaudet University. She is currently the coordinator of Visual Learning and Visual Language (VL2) at Gallaudet.

What was your childhood like, especially being from the South?

My childhood was a mixture of sadness and happiness. I struggled with my identity as a deaf person. Growing up as a deaf child, I didn’t have a role model. That is why it is so important for deaf children to see deaf adults. Deaf children need to have a positive image of themselves.

As a Black person, it was a challenge being in the South during the 1950s. I lived through a painful period in America. I internalized the oppression as a Black person, and, as a result, had a very negative self-image. The obstacles I faced were inferior education, a lack of role models, and negative stereotypes. I missed out on learning in the classroom in public schools. There were no support services provided for deaf students during my time. I have had to overcome them.

Have you experienced audism, racism, and sexism occurring at the same time?

Yes, I can recall an interesting experience in 1985 when I applied for a job in Houston, Texas at the Houston Community College System. The reality hit me when my co-worker told me that the administrators struggled with hiring me because of the fact that I was Black, deaf, and a woman. They knew that they would have a lawsuit on their hands if they didn’t offer me the job, because I was qualified for the position. I had a Master’s degree in Counseling, experience working with deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and was a member of the deaf community. The two white male candidates didn’t meet the qualifications as I did.

Before settling down as a Deaf Studies professor at Gallaudet University, what did you do and where did you go for college?

I graduated from Gallaudet College in 1972 with Bachelor’s in Psychology and a minor in Social Work. After graduating, I went straight to graduate school, at Gallaudet College once again. I graduated in 1979 with a Master’s degree in Counseling with the deaf.

After graduating from the Master’s program, I worked at Model Secondary School for the Deaf as a dorm counselor for day students. From 1983 to 1985, I was a school counselor. From 1985 to 1989, I worked as a counselor at the Houston Community College System.

I relocated to the DC area and worked as a career counselor in the Career Center until 1991. I became Coordinator of Minority Achievement and Multicultural Programs at Pre-College from 1991 to 1996. I never thought of obtaining a Doctorate degree. Dr. Glenn Anderson, the first Black deaf person to earn a Doctorate degree, told me it was lonely at the top. He encouraged me to go for my Doctorate degree.

What made you go in the field of Deaf Studies?

My interest started when I was the Coordinator for Minority Achievement and Multicultural Programs. During that time, I learned a great deal about academic achievement of minority students, diversity, multicultural and deaf culture.

When a position in the Deaf Studies department became available, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity for me to venture into a new area, such as teaching. I have always wanted to teach but ended up in counseling. I have been with the department since 1996. I felt that I could contribute to the field of Deaf Studies from a multicultural perspective.

I feel very strongly about the Deaf community respecting diversity among its members. I love this quote by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He once said, “America is not like a blanket — one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt — many pieces, many colors, and many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread.”

That quote describes how I feel about the deaf community in America. Being deaf is the common thread that brings us together to make a beautiful quilt. The quilt is made up of deaf and hard-of-hearing people who are African-American, Native American, Hispanic American, Asian American, and European American. We each have a culture within the larger culture. In other words, we are truly a culturally diverse group of deaf people with a rich heritage, which has its own identity and pride, and each adds its own special nuance of strength, color, and texture to the quilt.

You received a Doctorate degree in 2005. What is the subject of your dissertation?

The title of my dissertation is, “The Education of Black Deaf Americans in the 20th Century: Policy and Implications for Administrators in Deaf Schools.”

I took a course in my program related to Public Policy with Dr. Roslyn Rosen. It was the “spark” that helped me discover my dissertation topic, as this can be a challenge.  With the support of my advisors, Dr. William Marshall and Dr. Benjamin Bahan — who was the chair of the Department of ASL & Deaf Studies at that time — I narrowed down my topic to “The Education of Black Deaf Americans in the 20th Century: Policy Implications for Administrators in Deaf Schools.” The dissertation looks at the experience of those who attended segregated schools in North Carolina, Alabama, and Kendall School. I interviewed former students, teachers, and administrators; and looked at how segregation law impacted their education.

Photo credit: Misella Tomita

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