I wrote my senior thesis on a collection of films made in 1913 by the National Association of the Deaf. The NAD made the films because they were worried that Alexander Graham Bell would win his war against Sign Language and it would become extinct. It was a trying time for them. The Deaf had only found each other a scant generation before, banding together the over education that was finally available to them. Now society and the wave of Eugenics was trying to drive them apart again.
I felt like I should say something about the films because this year is their 100th birthday. The first film was made in 1910 and a few more in 1915, but the vast majority were all made in 1913 at the National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Before the films, the NAD was best known for its quest to erect a statue of a famous French teacher of the Deaf, the Abbe de l’Epee. Infighting was rampant. The fact that they were able to pull off a project on this scale was remarkable. It did remarkable things for them. They solidified as a community in the quest to keep their language. If the proof is in the pudding, the pudding is that Sign Language is stronger than ever today.
The movies are beautiful and fun. They’re all available online free of charge at Gallaudet University’s Library website. The general consensus as a favorite is Veditz’s plea for sign language, The Preservation of the Sign Language, which was inducted into the Library of Congress. He does say powerful things. I think my favorite might be the Address at the Tomb of Garfield, though. The collection of movies was funded by private donations of ten cents apiece from the Deaf community. This is the only time that everyone who donated got to participate and become the star of a film themselves. The community got dressed up to give a wreath to the newly-fallen president, and be filmed for it on the very last day of the convention. They look so pleased in their Sunday best, the plumes on the women’s wide hats obscuring some behind them, a man in the middle clutching a large U of fist-sized roses.
I went to Gallaudet University and spent four days flipping through their archives. I wore white gloves that swallowed my hands and took notes in dull pencil. The letters were all typewritten except for a few illegible post cards in spidery blue script, and the places they had scribbled notes to each other in the margins. Most of the correspondence was on left-over stationery from the local auto repair shop, or grocer. They chided each other for not thinking their small town had a movie theater, or complained about having to help their neighbor brand the new herd of cows. They urged each other to hang the expense and visit everyone at the convention. They worried when war broke out in Europe.
I like to look at this crowd and wonder if I read any of their letters or tried to decipher any of their hand writing during those days at Gallaudet. Whoever has collected there, identities obscured by age and primitive technology, they seem a lot more personal to me than the rest of the films featuring white men in suits emoting on a dark stage somewhere. Give me a gleeful crowd in finery instead. This is the community the films allowed to survive.