Deaf community wanted everyone to see more during Super Bowl performances


Monitor staff

Published: 02-08-2020 6:48 PM

Imagine if Adele was singing the National Anthem before the Super Bowl and the TV network shut off her audio, playing the sound of cheering crowds instead.

You’d probably be pretty upset, even angry.

Which is exactly how many people in the deaf community reacted when they gathered around TV sets before the football game to enjoy Christine Sun Kim’s spirited American Sign Language renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful.”

Instead, the hundreds of millions of viewers saw only a couple of snippets of Kim’s performance alongside singers Demi Lovato and Yolanda Adams, as the cameras repeatedly changed perspective. A separate feed on the Fox Sports website that was supposed to show Kim also cut away repeatedly, frustrating people who had looked forward to a national demonstration of this language by a famous interpreter.

One of those who was frustrated is Connie Clanton of Concord, who for 13 years has taught ASL to hearing students as a foreign language at UNH.

“(Kim) is particularly known for her performance art, a very powerful woman,” said Clanton, who has been deaf since 9 months old, speaking through interpreter Laura Meyer of Concord. “There was a lot of promotion in the deaf community. I told my family and friends. So we sat down to watch it and they might have given her 10 seconds.”

“I wanted to see how she had chosen to render the National Anthem. … When people hear the National Anthem they are all inspired, they feel great – we want that! And there was nada,” Clanton said. “All that excitement, all that optimism for so many of us … as the shot moved away from her to the singer, away from the performance artist, it was very disappointing.”

The National Association of the Deaf released a full video of Kim’s interpretation two days later, distributed via Facebook, which emphasized what people had missed.

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“She did an absolutely beautiful job,” said Clanton. “It’s great that we saw it, but for other people to be able to see it and have that sense of ASL, that was missing.”

Kim wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about it, expressing disappointment at “missed opportunity in the struggle for media inclusiveness,” while many others in the deaf community were angry. That includes actress Marlee Matlin, who has signed the anthem at three Super Bowls, including a performance with singer Garth Brooks. “Show the beauty of ASL!” she said in a social media video to the TV networks.

That’s the key point, said Clanton and Meyer. Like any language, ASL can convey beauty and depth as well as information.

“ASL isn’t just a word-for-word translation,” said Meyer.

Kim’s performances to songs like “America the Beautiful” are as much about visual art and body movement as translating the words.

Even basic sign language involves gestures, movements and expressions that follow complex rules, including what is known as “facial grammar,” which means that different translators can convey different feelings, especially when dealing with emotion-filled material like these songs.

Clanton gave a demonstration with the sign for the word “mountain.” It only needs to be a small gesture, involving linked hands moving in a circle, but to convey “purple mountain majesty” Kim involved almost her entire body sweeping back and forth. And Frances Scott Key’s “rocket’s red glare” and “bombs bursting in air” became sky-reaching gestures, informative and beautiful at the same time, which is why Kim’s rendition was labeled a performance as well as a translation.

Clanton said she hoped this controversy might raise awareness about ASL as a language among people who hadn’t thought about it before.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.]]>