Nowhere Man In Nowhere Land

By Jean F. Andrews

John Lennon’s sad lyrics in “Nowhere Man In Nowhere Land,” resonate in the life of Junius Wilson (1908-2001). Wilson was a Black Deaf man who was incarcerated for a rape he did not commit. His first six years at the State Hospital for the Colored Insane developed into a total of 76 years. During this time, he was surgically castrated . Back then, deaf and disabled people in jails and mental hospitals were considered “undesirables.” Even when Wilson was found to be mentally competent in the 1960’s, he was still held in the mental hospital because hospital staff did not know where to send him.

As a “nowhere man” invisibility surrounded Wilson for his whole life with hearing people. Born deaf in 1908 to a hearing family, his parents did not know how to communicate with him. They struggled with their deaf son’s anger and frustration.

But Wilson’s “nowhere man” status changed in 1916. At this time, at the age of 8, he entered the North Carolina School for the Colored Deaf and Blind in Raleigh, the first school for Blacks in the U.S. Here he learned a language—the Black deaf sign language or “Raleigh Black signs.” Through storytelling, folklore, humor passed down from deaf peers and adults in the Black deaf community, he acquired language. Here he learned and used “black signs” that are different than “white signs,” as Black deaf persons were segregated from White Deaf persons.

At the Black Deaf school, Wilson was “Somewhere.” He found his Black Deaf identity as he was immersed in a community of people like him. He found his “home” at the deaf school. Now he was “visible” to his peers and the adults around him. He could express his wants, desires and feelings.

But all this abruptly changed in 1924. As a student, he went to the fair in town and did not come back when he was supposed to, disobeying his supervisors. He was a teenager, expressing his independence and rebelling against the tight rules of the school. For this infraction, the school’s response was harsh. Wilson was expelled.
North Carolina State Hospital for the Negro Insane

His “nowhere man” status returned as he was back home with his family. Being an independent teenager, he frequently rebelled. He exploded in anger and frustration because none of his family knew sign language or understood him.
In 1925 he was accused of attempting to rape his cousin and found to be insane at a lunacy hearing. There was no interpreter present to get his side of the story. No one was there to assess his mental competence. He entered “nowhere land,” again when he was committed to the North Carolina’s State Hospital for the colored insane in 1925. The hearing hospital culture and community did not recognize Wilson’s language or Black deaf culture.

Indeed, Wilson’s deafness and disability made him the “nowhere man in nowhere land,” his status for much of his life. He was forced to work on the farm at the State hospital doing for decades doing what others wanted him to do. His education, his potential, everything he had to create his own life with his own aspirations and dreams were taken from him. While incarcerated, he could not hear what the others were ordering him to do. He could not communicate with the other inmates. His deaf cultural behaviors of touching and tapping people may have been misunderstood.

Chart showing number of sterilizations in North Carolina From 1928 to 1983.
Chart showing number of sterilizations in North Carolina From 1928 to 1983.

In 1932, he was surgically castrated as many other inmates who were considered criminally insane, mentally deficient, sexually perverted and deaf and dumb. Institutions were practicing eugenics. Thus the stereotypes of people with disabilities as being “oversexed,” or “animalistic,” were prevalent, as explained by Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner, in their book, “Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson.”

In 1960, the staff at the hospital realized that Wilson was not insane but they did not know how to bring him back into society. His lifetime at the hospital had made him dependent and vulnerable without language or an education. Finally, in the 1990’s, the social worker John Wasson found out that he was not insane and lawsuits resulted.

The lawsuits resulted in a house, a driver and a pension for Wilson. According to Wilson’s biographer’s Burch and Joyner, he lived out his life still at the hospital but in his own private cottage with his own private chauffer to take him shopping and to town.

Given an education, opportunity, language and immersion in the Deaf community, Wilson may have made a very different life than the one he lived out at the mental hospital. He may have been a “somewhere man” is a “somewhere land.” He could have learned a trade, got married, had children, and developed hobbies. He could have “had a point of view,” and his world could have been “under his command.” He would have reaped the benefits all of us do such as having an education, interests, opportunity, and support networks of family, friends and community to realize our potential.

Even though Wilson lived during a different historical time faced with such issues as Jim Crow segregation, eugenics and institutionalization, injustices for deaf inmates are still prevalent today. Indeed, there are many deaf inmates who are “nowhere man”, deprived of their Deaf culture, community and language during their arrests, bookings and incarcerations. They are in “the “nowhere land” of police stations, jails and prisons without have the same access to information and services that hearing inmates have.

Source: Susan Burch & Hannah Joyner (2007). Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson. Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press.

Jean F. Andrews is a Reading Specialist and Professor of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education at Lamar University.

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