Anna History Rants: Harlan Lane

My name is Laurent Clerc. I am eighty-three years old. My hair is white, my skin wrinkled and scarred, my posture crooked; I shuffle when I walk. Undoubtedly my life will soon end in this time and place: 1896, Hartford, Connecticut. I spend most of my day sitting alone at my dining room window, looking at my orchard and remembering. I also read the paper and occasionally friends come to visit. I know what’s going on. Important people, distinguished gentlemen, are repudiating the cause to which I have devoted my life. Endowed with the sacred trust of my people’s welfare, they seek, without consulting us, to prevent our worship, marriage, and procreation, to stultify our education, and to banish our mother tongue simply because our way and our language are different from theirs….

– Lane, Harlan, When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf, pg 3.

I have issues with Lane. He outright states in his introduction that he made stuff up when he couldn’t find out what happened, and I feel he wrote well-researched historical fiction rather than an actual history book.

But still. Lane didn’t write the first book about deafness from the POV of actual deaf people (Lane is Hearing – he cites Jack R Gannon’s book as the first history written by someone who was Deaf), but he wrote the one that launched a thousand ships, so to speak. He challenged, quite viciously, the idea that deafness was something to be “conquered”, and argued that a deaf-focused history was necessary.

Just as hearing people assumed, and taught the deaf, that the deaf community had no language of its own but at best a manual variant of spoken language, so they assumed, and taught the deaf, that they had no history in their own right but only at best a chapter in a hearing history (generally entitled “Educating the Deaf”).

A couple of very interesting things happened in the 80s. Lane’s book was published in 1984, 24 years after Stokoe successfully argued that Sign was an actual Language. In 1986, Children of a Lesser God was released, and Marlee Matlin became the youngest recipient of the Best Actress Award for her portrayal of a Deaf woman and her Hearing lover. In 1988, the students at Gallaudet University staged their Deaf President Now! protests, demanding an actual Deaf person be president of the university for the first time in its history. The four-day protests brought more attention to the issues of Deafness and Deaf Culture, beyond “cochlear implants”.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the paperback of Lane’s book was published in 1989.

Lane’s book seems to come from a place of anger, and I think that’s a good thing. His anger allows him to speak quite passionately and clearly about why he finds this erasure of deaf history and culture to be a bad thing. His position as a Hearing psychologist and linguist allows him to look “unbiased”, the way men are seen as unbiased about women’s rights, and white folks are supposedly dispassionate arbitrators of what is “really” racist. He is given the space, with his professional credentials and respected history, to talk about Deafness in a way that Hearing people will respect.

I have a time line of books I’m looking at for this part of my historiography paper. I think it’s clear that Lane opened the door, and a lot of people have gone through, further refining the analysis of Deafness and Deaf history.

This is the sort of thing that historiography is about. Looking at how certain works have had a profound influence, and how they are different from what went on before. Lane basically tells everyone that this conquering rhetoric needs to end. Everyone since him has been writing as though that’s now a generally accepted fact, and the questions need to be answered through that lens.

Now, if only I could write that in academic-speak, in about 2000 words.

3 thoughts on “Anna History Rants: Harlan Lane

  1. I don’t know if this fits with the historiography you’re doing, but I’m working on a project about assistive communication technologies, and just came across this book:
    Lang, Harry G. A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell.

    I haven’t gotten to read it yet, but it might be worth looking at? Good luck with the academic-speak!

  2. I came to Lane from The wild boy of Aveyron when I was reading it in 1997.

    Ten years later (or perhaps in 2008) I acquired When the mind hears.

    When we think of the other things which happened 20 years ago, like the Berlin wall, and the fall of Communist governments.

    You’ve probably just seen the Gallaudet protest and now you are thinking of buying the book, appreciating Deaf culture and history.

    Jack Ashley, a British Member of Parliament, wrote the introduction and review (in the paperback).

    When I read the Wild Boy, I formed an impression of Massieu and Laurent Clerc, as well as Alice Cogsworth.

    The two most angry chapters are the ones at the end. “The Denial” and “The Incurable Deafness”. Lane gets heated up about the 1900 Milan conference.

    About Deaf people communicating with the Hearing world through speech.

    Gallaudet: That is one object.
    Bell: That is one object and the greatest of all objects.

    Lane mentions the silent press from the 1800s and 1900s.

    Also there is Lydia Sigourney who wrote poems and taught Alice Cogsworth.

    And I don’t quite believe that French Sign Language was banned in French schools until very recently (the 1990s).

  3. Adelaide, I’m not quite sure I understand your comment, I’m sorry.

    Although the research I did last year had Sign Language banned in French Schools after the Milan Congress of 1880.

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