I could be considered a walking identity crisis according to today’s tribal politics. I’m Native American, Nigerian, and Scottish, with a Hispanic last name, adopted to a family of culturally Black people living in a mostly white area. Early in life, with that background and living in the place I lived, I experienced tribalism firsthand. For example, some neighborhood kids weren’t allowed to play with me because I wasn’t white. It wasn’t until I traveled the world that I understood no matter where I went, I saw tribalism attitudes among all cultures in every country I visited. Even those peoples with similar colors, names, and from similar locations found ways to divide themselves into tribes based on ancient feuds, their religion, or some issue that kept people from engaging and trying to understand each other.
With all that in mind, I remember my early days in elementary school. My family enrolled me in a Jesuit Catholic school. The nuns put the class’s children with disabilities, termed “special needs,” together in the back rows. This was years before the 1974 laws that began integrating children with disabilities into public schools. The private schools were the only schools taking disabled children. My “special need” was my dark skin color in a Wisconsin school with all Caucasian children. The benefit to being a victim of that racism was that I made friends with a blind girl, Virginia, and a deaf boy, Tommy, who sat in the back rows with me.
What I came to realize over the years was that my experiences with those “special needs” children opened my eyes to the advantages that can come from blending tribes. Being exposed to sign language through Tommy and learning Virginia’s capabilities without sight helped me see the value that all people can bring to one’s life. I eventually learned sign language and became an interpreter for a while. That led to my experiences teaching ASL and having the extreme honor of having conversations with chimpanzees. Of course, the most exhilarating and joyful experience I had was signing with my pre-speech sons and daughter. I often close my eyes when I improvise piano, guitar, flute, and other instruments… so that I can see my musical path in my “mind’s eye,” as Virginia used to tell me.
The direction my education took and the following research into early learning and human development were guided by diverse perspectives from different “Tribes.” One significant result was my use of sign language with hearing babies.
This cross-cultural gift from the Deaf was profound for early pre-speech communication and for helping a child learn to engage the world. I also realized the value fingerspelling can have in aiding children learning to put letters together and read (without “learning pressure”––in a game-like activity). These “gifts” the Deaf have given us would not be possible with tribal barriers. Much gratitude and acknowledgment should be given to the Deaf for creating such a useful tool for all humanity.
Removing tribalism and integrating communities can bring a powerful result––affecting the human condition. When we open our hearts to those who are not like us, we can learn and advance from that exchange. The result need not be fear or disregard or distain, but acceptance, understanding, and humanitarian gain.