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UMD American Sign Language educator exposes the power and culture within the language

Chris Johnson grew up deaf in a mainstream setting without exposure to ASL, let alone Black ASL. Now his life's work is to be the role model he always wanted.

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Chris Johnson will start as an American Sign Language instructor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth this fall. Johnson is the first Black deaf professor at UMD. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
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Chris Johnson was 30 years old the first time he was introduced to American Sign Language while attending graduate school in Washington D.C. at Gallaudet University, a university for the deaf and hard of hearing.

That was just two years ago. In August, he moved to Duluth for his first full-time teaching position at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he will start teaching ASL this fall. As a deaf instructor teaching hearing students, Johnson hopes to help students grow in their own identities and cultural competency, while also growing an ability to work with the deaf community and become an ally.

"I want to work with and understand each student and to help them grow within their own identity. And allow them the chance to truly understand our culture," Johnson signed in ASL. "And to help them find the passion to align with the deaf culture with authenticity."

The first Black deaf professor at UMD and one of the first in the state, Johnson believes a strong need exists for more mentors in the Black Deaf community, something he didn't have until he was an adult.

"That starts at schools, that starts at education, that starts with curricula," he signed. "ASL in education is not diversified and that impacts marginalized students at the beginning of their thought process and that has an impact that is lasting."

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A common misconception is that it's language without culture, when in fact there's much culture and variation within ASL, including Black ASL, an area that, Johnson signed, is difficult to preserve, especially without the curriculum and diverse ASL educators in place to expose it to more people.

That's something he wants to change as an educator.

"A Black person might use language differently than somebody else," Johnson signed. "The goal is to teach them all to understand and be comfortable interacting with people from different cultures."

"It's a way of life. It is a sense of belonging," Johnson signed about Black ASL. "It's where I can joke and be open and have conversations."

In the 2018-19 school year, 2,103, or 0.24% of students enrolled in K-12 schools in Minnesota identified as deaf or hard of hearing, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. Of those deaf and hard-of-hearing students, 63% were white, 12% were Asian American, 11% were Latino and 8% were Black.

Johnson's journey to ASL

Not everyone can go from learning ASL to teaching it at a university in the span of just two years, according to Raychelle Harris, one of Johnson's mentors and professors from Gallaudet University. Harris met Johnson at the beginning of his ASL journey when he made the switch from English-based signing to "real sign language," including Black ASL.

"He was so motivated and committed and is so social with people. It was a perfect recipe," Harris signed

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As a student in graduate school, Johnson stuck out. He asked hard questions and didn't accept anything at face value. Instead, he sought to understand and would challenge the system to try to make it better if there was an opportunity to do so.

"I look up to him. I'm excited for him and I'm excited for his future. He has this intrinsic motivation." Harris signed. "He's going to make waves. He really wants to make the world a better place and I think that's his driving motivation."

Johnson was raised in rural Georgia. He grew up in a mainstream setting surrounded by hearing people who spoke and because of that, he didn't have any interest in ASL. Later, he attended college at a university in the state. He recalled a memory from his time there when he stood on the sidewalk, with his eyes closed.

"I just felt so lost. I was like, 'How can I thrive in this environment because it felt like there was no oil in the engine," Johnson signed. "It took me seven years to graduate. At that time there were no mentors."

Then, for the first time, he was surrounded by a deaf community when he began working at the Tennessee School for the Deaf in 2016.

"There was a big resemblance I found with myself and the students," Johnson signed. "Once I entered the school I picked up the deaf culture. I knew how to communicate, but I definitely had to improve and pick up on my signing."

At the school, he was a mentor to deaf students and eventually became a substitute teacher. Despite encouragement from students and a teacher to pursue teaching, he initially resisted. But he'd soon find himself seeking a graduate degree in ASL education at Gallaudet University.

"At that point I really grew," Johnson signed. "I was just like, 'Wow, how could I not have had this?' I was able to socialize with anybody on campus."

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Chris Johnson was introduced to American Sign Language two years ago at the age of 30 while studying at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

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