In Our Own Hands edited by Brian H. Greenwald and Joseph J. Murray


27837529This collection of new research examines the development of deaf people’s autonomy and citizenship discourses as they sought access to full citizenship rights in local and national settings. Covering the period of 1780–1970, the essays in this collection explore deaf peoples’ claims to autonomy in their personal, religious, social, and organizational lives and make the case that deaf Americans sought to engage, claim, and protect deaf autonomy and citizenship in the face of rising nativism and eugenic currents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.


Author Sara Novic has written some wonderful essays about Deafness, including this one about the history and significance of American Sign Language (ASL). Reading it opened my eyes to a blind spot in my knowledge – Alexander Graham Bell was against Deaf people? There’s a movement called oralism? While I have a grasp of current issues (access to interpreting and captions, the debate over cochlear implants) I had no idea of what Deaf people were facing even fifty years ago. That’s where In Our Own Hands comes in.

I do want to say straight up – this is an academic work. The chapters are written by different people and pull from research, doctoral papers, and lots of other things that add up to pages and pages of end notes. Some authors write engrossing narratives while others are more on the dry side. So this is a book to get your learning on.

And boy, did I learn. In the 1800s deaf people were referred to as “The Deaf and Dumb” which made no sense to me until I read this snippet from a 1845 article:

The truth is, monkies [sic], and the lower animals, do not talk, because they have nothing to say. The tongue is moved by the mind, but where there is no intellect, there is no thought; and where there is no thought, there is no need of any language…

So in their minds the deaf didn’t speak because they were too dumb to need language. Cue jaw drop.

And that’s just the beginning. There are essays about Deaf citizenship, Deaf education, how Deaf organizations formed and changed over time, and just how awful Bell was. Many come back to the ideas of agency, paternalism, and oralism (the belief that spoken language is inherently better than sign language).

I especially like the intersectionality many of the essays cover. One chapter is about Black ASL, another touches on Deaf religious history in the American South, yet another looks at Deaf societies and associations in Australia. The editors have made an effort to shed light on subjects that are less known and I appreciate it.

While In Our Own Hands is not for the casual reader it’s a valuable look at Deaf history and activism that helped me fill a gaping hole in my knowledge. Looking back I should have given myself permission to skim the chapters that were super dry or covered topics that interested me less, but all in all the read was worth it.

Thanks to Gallaudet University Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.