We Wear the Mask – Part 2

I gave this talk nearly 31 years ago at a professional psychology conference, where I urged minorities to keep wearing masks.  For more detail and context, read the introduction to PART 1 of the talk.  Part 1 ended with James Baldwin’s assertion that Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima—two figures usually looked down upon by what today we might call “woke” people—had a power and significance we need to reassess.  Part 2 below begins by explaining why such reassessment is so crucial, not only when James Baldwin wrote about it in the 1950’s, but even more so today.


Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima represent those people who, as Baldwin says,

“…smile, who go to church, who give no cause for complaint, whom we sometimes consider with  amusement, with pity, even with affection–and in whose faces we sometimes surprise the merest arrogant hint of hatred, the faintest withdrawn, speculative shadow of contempt—who  make us uneasy…It is out of our reaction to these hewers of wood and drawers of water that our image of Bigger was created.”  Again, it is them we really fear, not Bigger.

Baldwin’s insight is that the image of Bigger Thomas, one which Richard Wright may have believed himself, is created out of the fear and compulsive desires of white society, but that image also lives inside the African-American heart. Here, I think, are the most important passages of his essay:

“…there is, I should think, no Negro living in America who  has  not felt,  briefly or for long  periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees and to varying effect,  simple,  naked and unanswerable hatred; who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day,  to violate,  out of motives of cruelest vengeance, their women, to break the bodies of all white people and bring  them  low,  as  low as that dust  into  which  he himself  has  been  and is  being  trampled;  no Negro, finally, who  has  not had to make his own  precarious  adjustment to the ‘nigger’ who surrounds him and to the ‘nigger’ in himself.” (30)

Baldwin does not believe Native Son conveys “the altogether savage paradox of the American Negro’s situation.”  “If, as I believe,” he says,

“…no  American  Negro  exists who does  not  have  his  private  Bigger  Thomas living in the skull,  then  what most  significantly fails to be illuminated here is  the paradoxical  adjustment which is perpetually  made,  the Negro being  compelled to accept the fact that this dark and  dangerous and unloved stranger is part  of  himself  forever.  Only this  recognition sets him in any  wise free and it is this,  this necessary ability to  contain  and  even,  in the most honorable sense of the word,  to exploit the ‘nigger,’ which lends to Negro life its high element of the ironic….” (33-34)  I suppose I could substitute “n-word” for the full word Baldwin uses, but I think doing so would dilute his meaning—and the feeling of his meaning.

Here the concept of the mask as I have been using it becomes crucial; for one can contain and even exploit the “nigger” only if the inside and outside images of this figure are kept apart by conceiving of it as a mask whose construction and use bears specific historical, psychological, even spiritual compulsions we can study and understand.  The mask-like quality of the Bigger Thomas image becomes even clearer in this passage. “When…the past [has been] thoroughly washed from the black face,” says Baldwin,

“…our guilt will be finished…But,  paradoxically,  it  is we who prevent this from happening;  since it is  we,  who,  every  hour that we live,  reinvest the black face with our guilt;  and we do this—by a further paradox no less  ferocious—helplessly,  passionately,  out  of  an unrealized need to suffer absolution.” (19)

Notice here the fierce concentration on the face.  In essence Baldwin has accused Richard Wright of not drawing a real, complex person, but has failed to understand that what Richard Wright has done is carve a mask.  In speaking of Bigger Thomas’s shortcomings as an image when measured up against certain realities of African-American life, Baldwin has charted the precise features of Bigger Thomas’ value as a mask. “The American image of the Negro lives also in the Negro’s heart,” Baldwin continues, “and when he has surrendered to this image life has no other possible reality.”  That is, Americans expect the Negro to feel or act or wish he or she could act like Bigger Thomas, the Bigger who gives in to violence, who “…dreams of some black man who will weld all blacks together into a mighty fist.” This image, according to Baldwin—and I think he is right—also lives inside, but what does it mean to give in to this image?  I think it means to let the two images fuse, such that the outside finally imposes itself upon and takes over the inside.  To keep them apart you need a mask.

This mask not only fools the outside into thinking you mirror its desires, its fears, its need for absolution, but also asserts a fundamental difference between the image that lives inside the heart and the image that waits outside. The mask is the obstacle that contains the image on the inside, such that a person knows that the image is only one of many possible options even though those on the outside think that that image is all there is.  Or, to put it another way, the outside always wants the inside to be all one thing.   The inside needs to know it is composed of many things and protect its right to remain complex.

I have reached here what may be an interesting reversal of the thought expressed in the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem I began with.  We see here that one wears a mask not only to hide something from the outside world, but because the outside world wants you to wear a mask so it won’t have to see what it doesn’t want to see.  One might think, then, that it would be a simple thing to say we will not wear the mask, we will make you see what you don’t want to see. Indeed, there is surely a time for this. What complicates matters is that, as Baldwin says, there is a Bigger Thomas, that lives inside also, and there is no use pretending there isn’t.  A racial minority in this country is compelled to live a double life, compelled to adopt an ironic attitude to the way others seem him or her. I am sure that every one wears masks of one sort or another.  But no one except a racial minority is compelled to because they simply do not look so absolutely different.  Because of this compulsion a version of the outside image grows also on the inside–but, as I have said, it is crucial that outside and inside remain separate.  The two images meet like the two sides of a mask meet, the inside image being like the back of the mask, the one that touches the face, the outside image being the front of the mask that presents itself to the world.  But they remain separate.

I will go to Zora Neale Hurston’s wonderful book Their Eyes Were Watching God mainly for this one scene and this one line which may help make this point about inside and outside clearer.  During a particularly stressful time in her marriage, the book’s main character, Janie, is slapped by her husband Jody Starks. “Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought,” writes Hurston.  “She  stood  there  until something fell  off  the  shelf inside her.   Then she went inside there to see what it was…She  had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.  (112-13)

The importance of keeping inside and outside separate is spectacularly portrayed in Ralph Ellison‘s Invisible Man.  In fact, the title suggests that when American society looks at a Black person they do not see that person, only its image of that person.  The person needs to know that what they see is not a real self but a mask, and he or she needs to know the precise features—physical, historical, psychological—of that mask.  At first the hero of the book, who is never given a name, thinks he can live without that mask, thinks others will accept him right away as a real person.  This attitude causes him untold confusion, and without this mask he is continually giving up his inner complexity to an outside force which wants to make his insides as monolithic as their outside view of him is.  Near the end of the book, in a eulogy to a fallen comrade, our hero says: “He was a man and a Negro; a man and a brother; a man and a traitor, as you say; then he was a dead man, and alive or dead he was jam-full of contradictions. So full that he attracted half of Harlem to come out and stand in the sun….”

He finally realizes the need for something to keep inside and outside separate, and appropriately enough for my purposes today, one of the next scenes of the book he, in effect, puts on a mask and seems to see the world for the first time.  Trying to escape a threatening scene he dons a white hat and shades, and is soon mistaken for a man named Rinehart.  More important, it soon becomes evident that this Rinehart is many things to many people. “Could he be all of them,” says our hero:  “Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend?  Could he himself be both rind and heart?…His world was possibility and he knew it….”

Zora Neale Hurston

He sees because he has donned a mask.  Though I have concentrated on Baldwin’s thoughts today, he gives us only one aspect of the complex subject of mask wearing.  His concern is with the delicate adjustments one must make between inside and outside images.  Ellison knows there is more than one mask that you can wear, and that each mask allows you to see something different as the outside world adjusts itself to the particular face, the particular mask front, it sees.  In the next chapter of Invisible Man the hero dons another mask, and amazingly enough it is the mask of an Uncle Tom, an Aunt Jemima.  On his deathbed the hero’s grandfather had told his grandson:

“…after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight.  I never told you,  but our life is a war and I have been a  traitor  all  my born days,  a  spy  in  the  enemy’s country…Live  with your head in the lion’s  mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses,  undermine ’em with grins,  agree  ’em  to death and  destruction,  let  ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.”  (16)

Our hero—everyone, in fact—thought the Grandfather had gone out of his mind, until he found out that only such masks could provide adequate protection against an overwhelmingly racist society.  Another piece of advice he had been given was, “Play the game but don’t believe it.”  He needed to understand how to use masks in order to accomplish this.

I have already quoted, near the beginning of these remarks, the passage which comes near the end of Invisible Man and contains the idea that “all life is divided and that only in division is true health.”  I have been trying to say that that division is best achieved by racial minorities by the judicious, studied process of wearing masks.  If nothing else, I hope that you will want to increase your familiarity with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry, and with the writings of Baldwin, Hurston, and Ellison.  There you may gain a more subtle, and definitely a richer feeling for the mask than I have been able to convey today.  But let me in closing get out of even these great writings and share where my own thinking about masks began a few years ago.

You might know that a college professor’s income needs lots of supplementing, and I’ve done that over the years mostly by doing lots of seminars for businesses which call me in teach writing courses or to solve this or that problem in communication or organization.  At one of these seminars, for one of the country’s largest engineering firms, it so happened that six of the twenty students were, like me, Filipinos, and during the breaks we would talk, working on the old affiliations that always seem to arise when people from the Philippines recognize one another. I suppose it’s the same for other ethnic groups.  I felt comfortable with them in class, and I could tell they were proud for one of their countrymen to be teaching the whole group English.  That’s always a sore point for Filipinos.  We know English.  The first time my first father-in-law met my mother he asked her—mostly through innocence—whether she spoke English, thinking, I suppose, that that might be the source of the marked shyness my mother always showed in the face of the dominant society.  She and my father were so incensed that they wanted me to break off relations with this American girl I was dating.  You see, my mother had taught English in a Philippine normal school for ten years.  And I, too, have come under similar suspicion.  At my own church, where I am song and worship leader, not too many years ago a newcomer, when directed to speak to me about this or that, asked her friend, “Does he speak English?”  I suppose seeing me lead the singing and the worship hadn’t convinced her that I did indeed know the language.  As I have said, the dominant society creates images of you which seem to simply blind them to reality.

At any rate, getting back to this one particular seminar, during one of the breaks during the third or fourth class session, one of my countrymen got me away and said, “Can you teach me to do what you do?”  “What’s that?”  I asked.  “Well, when you’re speaking with us during the breaks, your English sounds like ours, but the minute you step in front of the whole group it changes just like that,” he said with a sharp snap of his fingers.  “It’s all white!”  Admiration filled his voice.  I recovered quickly, and I said to him, “Art—his name was Art Baizas—I paid a big price to be able to do that.  I don’t know if you want to pay that much—or should.”

That price was becoming correspondingly estranged from my own people to the degree that I conformed so well to the image of the dominant culture.  Once people got used to hearing my virtually accentless speech, they came to forget my color.  But so did I.  It was not so much that they accepted my difference, but that they and I forgot it, and thereby lost touch with a basic reality. Much of this is merely personal, but a lot of it isn’t.

Filipinos in particular may of all racial groups find themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum from African-Americans simply because our country has been ruled by Westernpowers—mainly Spain and the United States—for almost four centuries.  We have steeped ourselves as a people in United States idealism for years, so much so that many of our writers have often wondered whether we are really different at all.  In the December 1940 issue of Philippine-American News Digest, the journalist P.C. Morante wrote:

“In  myself I am often at a loss to account for  the genuine native.  To be sure, I have the physical quality of my race; but I feel that the composition of my soul is  thoroughly  soaked  with  the  alien spirit.  Of course…a  great number okf my people…are aware  that even their virtues are borrowed and that their thinking, their  dreams and their aspirations have been influenced so much by American and Spanish ways that the indigenuos substance of their true being has been crushed or  lost…My actions and reasctions,  my thoughts and ideals,  even  my  complexes and  inhibitions—all this seems to revolve around a foreign pattern that is easily recognizable as intrinsically of the West.”

But just let an incident happen like the one I told you about at my church.  And just think what a white person probably thinks seeing me walk down the street.  My skin marks me as foreign.  My foreigness calls into question my English, for example, and I can no longer deny my “place.”  I love my difference, but hate it also.  Under such circumstances I think I better try to understand mask wearing better.

In the beginning of my remarks I said I was preaching deception, but perhaps I said that merely to be provocative.  My Hopi Indian friend Ramson Lomatewama told me yesterday that the Hopi do not call masks “masks.” The Hopi refer to them as “friends.”  As “friends” they protect the inside, on the one hand, and allow powerful visions of the outside world on the other.  The mask as friend.  Perhaps this is a better idea to end on.  And if we cannot see some masks as friends, perhaps this idea might at least lead us to make peace with them and, to use Baldwin’s phrasing, learn to exploit them in the most honorable way.  Such a way might lead us all to become more sensitive to masks and to study them as a way of acquiring a more precise understanding of our differences and thereby appreciating our diversity more than ever.

  Go to the Teaching Diversity page, to a List of Black Writers written about on this site, as well as a post listing all the writing specifically on James Baldwin.

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Every Person’s God-Given Ability to Contribute

Rick Guzman is The Neighbor Project’s Executive Director, and so important was his talk during The Neighbor Project’s 2020 virtual gala that I have posted a VIDEO of it below all by itself for anyone who did not watch the whole 45-minute gala (which you can still watch HERE), or even the 19-minute Gala Highlights I recently did for this site.

His talk highlighted The Neighbor Project’s impressive growth since early 2018, when Emmanuel House merged with The Joseph Corporation to create The Neighbor Project, and casted a vision for its expanding service to financially vulnerable families and individuals for the rest of 2020, then 2021 and beyond.

He casted this vision in the larger context of loving our neighbors enough to invest in them, saying, “We have to believe in our neighbors enough to invest in them, invest in others the way we would want to be invested in…[so] we can keep working to break down the barriers to home ownership, which are the single largest driver of this nation’s wealth gap.”  That wealth gap is unbelievably enormous (see my article “Graphic Inequality”) and even larger is the Racial Wealth Gap.

He set all this in the largest context of all by quoting from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote.  “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

This talk is an example of what we need more of in this time of protest and soul-searching.  It ties practical action into a deep vision of our mutuality, and vice versa:  it ties that deep vision to practical steps that make that vision a reality in our everyday lives.  And more, it’s also a question of Who Leads?—a question playing out in the protests and other anti-racists actions across our nation today.   Writing in 1970, Robert Greenleaf, who started the field of Servant Leadership, said,  “…the next 30 years will be marked as the period when the dark skinned and…the alienated of the world assert their claims…” and were not “led by a privileged elite…It may be that the best that some of today’s privileged can do is to stand aside and serve by helping when asked and as instructed.”  Guzman expresses his belief that, “If we enlist and empower and engage financially vulnerable populations with opportunities…these otherwise vulnerable populations can quickly become contributing members and leaders for our communities.”  That’s an expanded version of a core belief he’s expressed many times: “Every person has a God-given ability to contribute.”

♦  Go to The Neighbor Project’s website to donate and get involved, and to “Emmanuel House Becomes The Neighbor Project” for a bit of history.

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We Wear the Mask – Part 1

I gave the talk below at the Forest Institute for Professional Psychology’s first annual Cross Cultural Conference.  My thoughts weren’t exactly celebratory, nor did they seem to fit a psychology atmosphere, which usually asks us to lower our masks and get real with ourselves and others.  In contrast, I urged minorities to keep wearing theirs, an idea that seemed useful enough for the Institute to publish in a book on the conference.  The stubborn, shameful persistence of racism in America has kept these thoughts as pertinent today as when I shared them in May 1990—nearly 31 years ago.  Also, these thoughts center on one of James Baldwin‘s greatest essays, “Many Thousands Gone.”  I’ve been studying and using his works for much longer than 31 years, and today I hear as much as ever people saying: What would Baldwin say to us about today’s racial crisis?  Is it merely just the latest one in a long string of them that will lead to very little, or does this one promise some kind of turning point in our nation’s struggles to deal with its original sin? 


The title of my talk today comes from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s great poem “We Wear the Mask,” so I think it would good to start by reading it.


We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,–
This debt we pay to human gile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth we myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To Thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh, the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask.


Today I want to trace this image of mask wearing through several works of African-American literature, but one work in particular—James Baldwin’s essay “Many Thousands Gone,” one of eleven essays which made up his extraordinary book Notes of a Native Son.  In fact, my talk today is a kind of preliminary step towards a larger project in which I plan to do a major re-reading of this essay, breaking it up and rearranging it in order to reveal some of the complex literary and psychological processes at work in Baldwin’s writing.  Today, however, I will be re-reading his essay in order to talk about the more general subject of mask wearing.

I believe that for minorities in America mask wearing is not only the norm but also a necessity.  But mask wearing is dangerous, and there are several ways to formulate this danger.  In an important scene from his recent novel Montgomery’s Children, Richard Perry has one main character, Norman, deliver a  history lesson to another main character, Gerald.  “Did Gerald know about slavery?” Norman asks:

“Not how his schoolbooks painted the picture,  which made you ashamed,  but what it was really like,  how  it had lacerated the soul and made you angry just to think about  it.   In the teeth of this pression,  colored people  had artfully pretended to have no  mind,  or at least  not enough to shake a stick at.   This  deception was  necessary,  for  it  allowed the physical  self  to survive.  Then  he said the strangest thing in that strangest afternoon:  there can be no survival without deception.  But while they practiced   deception, Norman continued,  they  did not preach it.   As a result, the children  grew  up  mistaking  mask  for  matter,  never wondering at where the marvelous grace in their  bodies came from, never questioning its possibilities.  So they only danced, when they could have flown.” (108-09)

Here we have the danger of mistaking “mask for matter.”  One more step and, as some say, mask becomes matter.  Or it molds the face beneath it, so that in stripping off a mask one discovers beneath a face perfectly molded to the mask’s contours.  An even more common way of expressing the dangers of mask wearing is implicit in both passages just quoted:  that is, it’s something to hide behind, which may be OK to a degree, until a person begins using it to hide things from himself or herself.  Use a mask to hide your pain from others, and you are dangerously close to using that mask to hide your own pain from yourself.  Such situations are normally considered to hinder counseling, academics, and virtually everything else this conference is concerned about.

But if you are a minority in this country, and perhaps especially if you are Black, not wearing a mask may seem even more dangerous.  Survival itself could be at stake. As Perry says, “There can be no survival without deception.”  Dunbar speaks of the mask as “a debt we owe to human gile,” and Perry implies that the practice of deception needs to go hand in hand with the preaching of it.

In a strange way that’s what I am doing today:  preaching deception.  I want to say that wearing a mask may be not only a tactical necessity, but a condition of being, especially of being a racial minority in the United States.  Much African-American literature seems to be saying this, too, and these thoughts may also be finding odd confirmations in the controversial post-structuralist thinking of persons like Jacque Lacan and Jacque Derrida of France, as well as Americans like the philosopher Richard Rorty.  Indeed, some of my preliminary conclusions are so troubling even to me that I am as willing to be talked out of them today as I am to persuade you.

For example, if one has grown up steeped in the liberal arts and the traditional values of humanism, one talks about stability, wholeness, and the conjoining of the private and public self.  But much post-structuralist thinking asks us to question whether there really is a central self at all, much less a stable one.  It sees wholeness as an illusory, even a harmful, goal.  And in his newest book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity Richard Rorty says we simply must give up the attempt to unite private and public life.  As I have said, much African-American writing seems to say something similar.  At the end of Ralph Ellison’s landmark novel Invisible Man, for example, the main character says:

“I’ve  come  a long way from those  days  when,  full  of illusion,  I  lived  a  public  life  and  attempted  to function  under the assumption that the world was  solid and  all the relationships therein.   Now I know men are different and that all life is divided and that only  in division is there true health.”  (563)

I shall return to this book near the end of my remarks today.  For now, though, I need to say that in navigating my way around such disturbing ideas, the concept of the mask has been a great help to me.  Unlike psychologists like Thomas Szasz or Willard Gaylin,  I do not believe that what you see is, in actuality and in the final analysis, necessarily the real you.  Nor do I believe, like the sociologist Erving Goffman, that a person is finally just the sum total of all his or her roles.  In fact, I want to begin looking closely at the concept of the mask by making a distinction between a role and a mask.  Goffman may finally be more right than wrong:  people may be nothing more than their roles. When I think of a mask I think of something much more objective than a role.  In fact, I think of an object: a mask such as one would have worn in ancient Greek drama, or a mask one might don in more ritualistic societies in order to take on certain characteristics of, say, a god.  In this latter case in particular, one achieves a delicate, paradoxical balance:  the mask gives you power without confusing your actual being with that power or the source of that power.  And when I use the phrase “your actual being” I am not necessarily arguing for either the idea of a whole self or a stable central self.

The French psychotherapist Jacques Lacan uses the term “mirror stage” to describe that moment when a person beholds his image as in a mirror and constructs a sense of his or her own wholeness based on the apparent wholeness of that image.  To behold a mask is almost to do the opposite.  It is to behold a wholeness while knowing that wholeness to be artificial or at least temporary.  In fact, a mask makes more tangible the game playing quality of identity.  It divides inside from outside.  It can help mark or reveal the complex functions and boundaries of the various roles one might be playing in life.  In fact, one could ask a series of questions such as:  If a particular role could be turned into a mask, what would that mask look like, what would you carve it out of, what with, and how would you carve it?  When would you wear it?  Perhaps most important, what would you see when you wore it?  For a mask not only hides things; in most masks there are eyeholes, and the power it gives is in large part the power of vision—a view of life one would not have without wearing it.  In this context a mask could be seen as an obstacle which prevents a role from seeming to take you over. Masks as tangible, object-like, even “obstacle”-like things—this is the attitude I want to encourage towards masks.  This would make the wearing of them, and the deception this entails, both less dangerous and more useful.

In his novel Arrow of God the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe describes how the carver of a mask watches the mask in action and studies every detail, every line of its construction.  This is one way to make the mask as tangible as possible, so tangible one could almost turn it over in one’s hands. This is what I want to begin doing now by turning to James Baldwin’s essay “Many Thousands Gone.”  In my re-reading of it I want to see what answers it gives to questions like,  What does it look like? or Who carved it?, etc., as they pertain to one mask African-Americans wear.

“Many Thousands Gone” appeared in the Partisan Review in the waning days of 1951, and made James Baldwin’s reputation; for in it he mounted a formidable critique of the reigning Black writer of the day, his mentor Richard Wright, and in particular Wright’s great novel Native Son.  You may recall, either from reading the book or seeing the recent Oprah Winfrey movie version, that the book tells the story of Bigger Thomas, whose accidental killing of a white woman perpetrates other violence.  Bigger pays with his life. The book’s real ending is the long speech by Max to the jury, a speech which Baldwin calls “one of the most desperate performances in American fiction.” (41) Here nothing less than the nature of Bigger’s humanity is at stake, and it finally boils down to Bigger being portrayed, in Baldwin’s words, as “the monster created by the American republic, the present awful sum of generations of oppression.” (41)  In other words, see what comes from treating African-Americans so badly.  We’d better start treating them better or else watch out.  This idea, says Baldwin, “carries, implicitly, a most remarkable confession: that Negro life is as debased and impoverished as our theology claims.” (41)  Baldwin’s accusation is that Richard Wright fell into the American trap of treating African-Americans not as real people, but as social constructs.  The novel Native Son, says Baldwin, “finds itself…so trapped by the American image of Negro life and by the American necessity to find the ray of hope that it cannot pursue its own implications.” (40)

“One may say,” says Baldwin, “…that  the  Negro  in America does not  really  exist except in the darkness of our minds….” (24-25)

“He  is  a  social and not a  personal  or  a  human problem;  to  think  of him is to think  of  statistics, slums,  rapes,  injustices, remote violence; it is to be confronted with an endless cataloguing of losses, gains, skirmishes…. (25)  “In our  image  of the Negro breathes the  past  we deny, not dead but living yet and powerful, the beast in our jungle of statistics. (28) “We cannot ask:  what do we really feel about him—[because]  such a question merely opens the  gates on chaos. (24)  “…if he breaks our sociological  and  sentimental image of him we are panic stricken and we feel ourselves betrayed.  When he violates this image, therefore, he  stands  in  the  greatest  danger  (sensing  which,  we    uneasily  suspect  that he is very often playing a  part for our benefit)….” (25)

In confirming this image, Richard Wright, says Baldwin, creates a character less complex, less ironic, less real.  The novel’s portrayal of African-American life suffers similarly.  “What this means for the novel,” says Baldwin, “is  that a necessary dimension has been cut  away;  this dimension  being the relationship that Negroes  bear  to  one  another,  that  depth of involvement  and  unspoken recognition  of shared experience which creates a way of life.”

This situation is, in fact, common to most protest novels by Black Americans, and has led us all, says Baldwin,

“…to  believe  that  in Negro  life  there  exists  no tradition,  no  field  of  manners,  no  possibility  of ritual…such as may,  for example, sustain the Jew even after  he has left his father’s house.   But the fact is not  that the Negro has no tradition but that there  has as yet arrived no sensibility sufficiently profound  and tough to make this tradition articulate.” (35-36)

Baldwin was writing this in 1951.  It would be only a year later that such a writer would appear: Ralph Ellison, who published Invisible Man in 1952.  Furthermore, fourteen years earlier, in 1937, had appeared a book largely ignored by 1951, a book which, in fact, Richard Wright hated.  That book, only recently rediscovered and currently one of the hottest items in African-American studies, was Zora Neale Hurston’s There Eyes Were Watching God.  I shall return to these two novels shortly.  For now, though, despite what seems to be a certain short-sightedness, this Baldwin essay “Many Thousands Gone” defines as well as any piece of writing ever has a specific irony central to African-American life and related to what I want to say about masks.

Let me try to get at Baldwin’s unique insight by asking this question.  Given that Bigger Thomas is too simplistically drawn, that he is more a social image or racist myth than a real, complex human being—does this mean that Americans, both black and white, should simply forget Bigger Thomas and get on to some other image more real?  Baldwin’s surprising answer is, No.  For Bigger Thomas is constructed out of real fears, growing out of real historical circumstances, issuing real psychological effects.  To forget Bigger Thomas would be to deny an unfortunate, but nonetheless persistent image associated with Black Americans.  To ignore Bigger is the effort of what Baldwin refers to as the New Negro, and in a larger sense this essay is addressed to that “New Negro” and his or her faults even more than it is addressed to Richard Wright and his supposed failings.

Who is the New Negro?  Baldwin writes:

“Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom are dead,  their places taken by  a  group  of amazingly well-adjusted young  men  and women,  almost as dark,  but ferociously literate, well-dressed and scrubbed,  who are never laughed at, who are not likely ever to set foot in a cotton or tobacco field or  in  any but the most  modern  kitchens.   There are others who remain,  in or odd idiom,  ‘underprivileged;’ some are  bitter  and these come  to  grief;  some are unhappy, but, continually presented with the evidence of a better day soon to come,  are speedily becoming  less so.   Most of them care nothing whatever  about  race. They  want  only  their proper place in the sun  and the right  to be left alone,  like any other citizen of  the republic.   We may all breathe more  easily.   Before, however,  our  joy at the demise of Aunt Jemima or Uncle Tom  approaches the indecent,  we had better ask  whence they sprang, how they lived?” (27)

It is amazing how fresh this passage remains almost forty years later, and how uncannily it describes the minority students I regularly encounter at my college, and in particular those who take my course in African-American literature.  How fervently these students believe in progress.  How they believe things are so much better than in the “old days.”  How they clutch at the notion that all they need is a college degree.  The degree to them is almost magical, not just a ticket to assured prosperity and total fulfillment, but also something that will largely nullify the reality of race.  Said one older Black person with whom I had lunch recently, “These young kids need to realize that no matter what degree they get, they’re still black.”  She said this with a certain amount of fear.  And at a major conference on Civil Rights held just this past January at North Central College, several of our guests urged the students to reconsider Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom and not sell them short.  As professor Robert Starks of Northeastern Illinois University said, “These old folks did better than most of you are doing today.”

This is Baldwin’s message, too.  The Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas, says Baldwin,

“…prepared  our feast tables and our  burial  clothes; and,  if we could boast that we understood them,  it was far  more  to  the  point and far more  true  that  they understood us.   They were, moreover, the only people in the world who did; and not only did they know us better than we knew ourselves, but they knew us better than we knew them…we were driven to conjecture what depths of contempt, what heights of indifference,  what prodigies of  resilience,  what untamable superiority allowed them so vividly to endure, neither perishing nor rising up in body to wipe us from the earth…The black man in  our midst carried murder in his heart,  he wanted vengeance.  We carried murder too, we wanted peace.” (28)

In the end, then, it is not people like Bigger Thomas we really fear.  Bigger is too obviously just a warning, not a real person.  Because his anger is out in the open he comforts us more than disturbs us, for he confirms—he justifies—our feeling that Black people really are violent beasts who need to be kept separate, always rejected.  Nothing is more discomforting than hidden anger.  It’s the Aunt Jemima, the Uncle Tom we really fear.

END of PART 1 — Read PART 2

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Magic and Consumption at the End of History – Part 2

This is PART 2 of a talk I gave in 2004 at a humanities conference in Prato, Italy.  For more context on that talk as well as its eerie relevance to some of the crises we face today—including the world-wide pandemic—read the full introduction to it at the beginning of PART 1.  I re-publish this here now (it was first published in a journal whose cover is below) partly as a reflection on Christmas, still perhaps the pinnacle of our consumption frenzy.  Part 2 below begins by discussing the third element in my argument about the imaginative nature of consumption today.  That’s Time, the first two elements being History and Aesthetics, discussed in Part 1.  This talk is a rather academic effort, though I try at the end to suggest ways to make it more relevant to high school seniors.  For a different, more humorous, decidedly less academic take on consumption during this season, go to “Meeting Frank Capra: A Holiday Tale.”



3.  TIME:  The polyrhythms Appadurai speaks of occur in a radically linear and open-ended time frame which reinforces insatiability. Nothing has to end, really.  Large-scale innovations in lending, says Appadurai,

…have created an open-ended rather than cyclic climate for consumer borrowing: they have linked borrowing to the long, linear sense of a lifetime of potential earnings and the equally open-ended sense of the growth value of assets such as houses, rather than to the short and inherently restrictive cycles of monthly or annual income…the small periodicities of consumption have now become contextualized in an open, linear sense of the very rhythm of consumer life. (81-82)

In small, low-tech societies consumption, according to Appadurai, is governed by “interdiction,” a list of do’s and don’t’s related to bodily need and seasonal availability and “combining cosmology and etiquette in special ways” (71).  As society becomes more complex, interdiction is overtaken by “sumptuary law” which regulates consumption according to the tension between the aristocracy and an ascending bourgeois class, a situation which commenced in Europe sometime in the 15th century.  The consumer revolution of the 18th century in Europe sees a shift from sumptuary law to fashion, and as advertising—fashion’s closest attendant—grows more and more powerful, the laws of fashion allow consumers to become increasingly disengaged from social/historical processes as such.  They are drawn, instead, more easily into a world of imagination and fantasy, a world in which the structures of time move to the more linear, open-ended flow of commerce rather than history.  Such an atmosphere calls forth the supremacy of the imagination, not only in the sense of daydreaming and fantasizing, but also in the sense of having to continually create landmarks, islands of stability, in an essentially unbounded flow of time and goods.

At this point we may see clearly how the three areas marked out for study converge.  For this open-ended sense of time converges with the end of history, which “used to” structure time epochally, emphasizing beginnings and endings, but is now muted, unable to clearly mark any endings at all.  Finally, the aestheticizing of sensation, or hedonism, leads to insatiability—perhaps the most spectacular of all forms of open-endedness.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Somehow the ideas developed in the three areas above have to be brought down to something understandable and certainly more immediate to a high school senior taking Consumer Education.  We first need to help students understand how history, aesthetics, and time have converged in particular ways to create the conditions under which consumption becomes the major imaginative activity of our time.  Each section marked for study may generate questions, pieces of literature and art, a good movie or TV program that may engage students and help them connect consumption practices to ideology.  For example, the end of history idea may be directly related to the United States’ current entanglements in Iraq, and certainly the entire war on terrorism.  With all this present turmoil, can liberal democracy truly be said to be that dominant?  What are the main ideas of liberal democracy anyway, especially as related to the free market?  Even cartoons can help focus discussion.  A recent New Yorker cartoon by Mick Stevens, for example, shows a vaguely Middle-Eastern man looking confused and bug-eyed, wearing an “I love U.S.A.” tee-shirt, and standing in the midst of the rubble of a bombed out city.  Emanating from his head are bubbles showing his thoughts: “Is my breath OK?” “Am I losing my hair?” “Do I need a new car?” “Is my deodorant letting me down?” “What’s on TV?” “Am I gaining too much weight?” “Are my teeth white enough?”  The caption reads: “Liberated Iraqi” (28).

The area of aesthetics is easier to approach, simply because commercials are ubiquitous and, more often than not, better than the shows they sponsor.  More important, virtually all ads are better than the products they advertise.  Exploiting this gap between representation and reality is a key way to explore the aestheticizing of hedonism.

The area of time offers the most ironic area of exploration; for while contemporary time has been made linear and open-ended, almost infinite, our day to day sense of time has become cramped.  In the midst of infinity, we feel we have less time than ever.  This is due in large part to the demands of liberal democracy and advertising, so we see these three areas converging once again.  In the midst of this open-endedness we also seem to hunger more for closure—not, it is important to note, for finality, but for smaller kinds of endings now that the end of history, consumerist insatiability, and an open-ended time have corroded larger, cultural senses of endings.  Over twenty years ago, Frederic Jameson remarked that one of the main features of post-modernity was “…the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions” (125).  But even in the midst of this, I sense a longing for tradition.  True, this longing for tradition often comes in the form of nostalgia.  As Appadurai and many other have noted, “The effort to inculcate nostalgia is a central feature of modern merchandizing,” and it is a special kind of nostalgia that teaches consumers “to miss things they have never lost” (76-77).  The hunger for tradition also finds an outlet in a fascination with antiques, or with what McCracken and others have called “patina,” as in “the patina of age.”  In his wonderful book Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy essentially sees the open-endedness of postmodern life creating an empty or “nought” self.  “Consider to what extent an ‘antique’ is prized,” he says in one of the many thought experiments that end each chapter,

…because it is excellently made and beautiful and to what extent it is prized because it is an antique and as such is saturated with another time and another place and is therefore resistant to absorption by the self…and thus possesses a higher coefficient of informing power for the nought of self.  (25)

Still, nostalgia might be fruitfully exploited.  In The Sense of an Ending Frank Kermode notes the tension between a “World Without End or Beginning” (one of his chapter titles) and the continuance of apocalypse, of some kind of definitive ending, not only as a theme but as a condition of writing, especially of fiction writing.  “Novels,” he writes,

…no matter how much they shift time, put slices of it layer on layer in search of intemporal concord, are always in some way bound to what Sartre calls its ‘manifest irreversibility.’  Their beginnings, middles, and ends, however refined, however distorted from the paradigm, will always join it somewhere. (174)

Earlier in his study he speaks of “complementarity,” borrowing a concept from Quantum Physics to explain how older paradigms are incorporated into—made complementary to—newer ones, though the old ones may not longer fit the “facts” of contemporary times (59-64).  He calls a fiction that undertakes such incorporation a “concord-fiction” (59).  “In the middest,” as Kermode calls our uncertain immersion in time, “we look for a fullness of time, for beginning, middle, and end in concord” (58).  So here I call for a “complementarity” that incorporates older senses of endings into our newer sense of open-endedness, not in an effort to revive an apocalyptic sense of ending, but to revive smaller periodicities—the day to day, week to week rhythms of beginning and ending, action and rest, accumulating and divesting, that often get lost in the shuffle of open-ended time.  Of these “smaller” periodicities, we could single out here the rhythm of human contact versus aloneness, for it seems that in our present day we actually spend more time alone, or in pseudo-contact with others via various forms of technology, than we ever have.

Earlier I quoted words at the beginning and end of a longer passage from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.  In the midst of being bewildered by the things of the First World, one of things the residents of Maconda encounter is the phonograph, which also causes as much of a stir as movies and street lights.  But, writes Marquez, “from so much and so close observation they soon reached the conclusion that it was not an enchanted mill as everyone had thought…but a mechanical trick that could not be compared with something so moving, so human, and so full of everyday truth as a band of musicians” (211-12).

Each of the three areas above provides, that is, an occasion for the exercise of irony.  The freedoms of liberal democracy that also imprison us.  The aestheticizing of things that makes representation more real than actuality.  The open-endedness of time that makes us feel more bereft of time than ever.  Developing such a sense of irony would be the second most important goal of a broadened Consumer Education course.

The first goal would “simply” be to highlight the imaginative activity that is consumption in our time.  The three areas above set the stage, but finally students need to be encouraged to see consumption symbolically.  Jacque Lacan, in his famous (or infamous) “Seminar on the ‘Purloined Letter,’” says, “…the subject must pass through the channels of the symbolic” (337).  Moreover, the subject, the person, moves through life according to the rhythm of deplacing signifiers.  Again, Lacan: “the displacement of the signifier determines the subjects in their acts, in their destiny, in their refusals, in their blindnesses, in their end and in their fate…everything that might be considered the stuff of psychology, kit and caboodle, will follow the path of the signifier” (338).  We must do some fancy translation here, but if we think of the various things persons buy because they think these things are “them”—whether clothes, CD’s, cars, arts, whatever—then discard them when they “no longer are them,” we have a record, a personal history, of what they imagined themselves to be and what they imagined themselves becoming.

One of the most practical projects I see resulting from these preliminary notes on consumption would be to adapt as many of Walker Percy’s aforementioned “Thought Experiments” from Lost in the Cosmos to thought experiments for Consumer Ed students.  Lacan’s “path of the signifier” is one of the main trails Percy is trying to follow.   In the chapter “The Self as Nought (II),” subtitled “Why Most Women, and Some Men, are Subject to Fashion” he sees the acquiring and discarding of goods following a six-stage process.  The last two are these:

Fifth stage: Gradually the new style becomes everyday, quotidian, rendered neutral.  No matter how exotic it is, like a morsel to which an amoeba is attracted and which it surrounds and takes into itself, it is devoured and becomes part of the transparent flowing substance of the amoeba.

Sixth stage:  After a sufficient lapse of time, the husk or residue of the new style is excreted and becomes an oddity, a slightly shameful thing but still attached, like the waste in the excretory vacuole of the amoeba. (28)

Excretory imagery notwithstanding, there is also a magic in how the things we consume form us.  The “magic” in my title comes partly from the magical-realist style of Marquez and others that has become, in my view, one of the hallmarks of Third World style in the age of globalization.  At the end of history our super-heated practices of consumption infuse everyday reality with a kind of magic.  At least in our marveling at technology and our enjoying of a surfeit of “the finest things” in life, we are not quite sure, as Marquez says, “where the limits of reality lay.”  But the term magic also acknowledges the mysteriously inextricable hold things have over us. Lacan puts it this way in one of his most elegant passages:

What could be more convincing…than the gesture of laying one’s cards face up on the table?  So much so that we are momentarily persuaded that the magician has in fact demonstrated, as he promised, how his trick was performed, whereas he has only renewed it in still purer form: at which point we fathom the measure of the supremacy of the signifier in the subject.  (331)

Of course Percy, and perhaps Lacan, see such processes negatively, a means to evade, or cope with, the essential emptiness of the self.  But that revelation, if it is true, can wait until some more basic imaginative connections are made first.  Consumption as an imaginative form of self-making.  What do your excreted purchases say about how you imagined yourself, and what do your future “needs and wants” tell you about how you imagine your destination?  Beyond this there is the looming shadow of a world of have’s and have-not’s.  What I am proposing here is a program aimed at the privileged.  Super-heated consumption practices, on the other hand, work upon those not so privileged in some of the same ways they work upon high school seniors in Naperville, Illinois.  The lag time between want and fulfillment is one big difference, and while most current models of globalization seem aimed at making that lag time equally small for all people, these preliminary thoughts aim at making the lag time more equal in the opposite direction.  Thomas Friedman wrote “A Manifesto for the Fast World.”  In the end, perhaps what I’m proposing here will lead to an ironic manifesto for a slower world.  Considering consumption imaginatively can be an exercise in slowing down, cooling down, that may lead us more efficiently than intellectual hectoring to a more responsible style of consumption in the future.


Appadurai, Arjun.  Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization.  Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Campbell, Colin.  The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Carson, Tom.  “Material Girl.”  Atlantic Monthly (October 2003): 115-118.

Fischer, John.  “Survival U: Prospects for a Really Relevant University,” in Richard Peck, ed. Leap Into Reality: Essays for Now.  New York: Dell/Laurel, 1973: 261-  72.

Friedman, Thomas.  “Manifesto for a Fast World.” (Available at many places on the Worldwide Web)

Fukuyama, Francis.  “The End of History?” in Patrick O’Meara, et al, eds. Globalization and the Challenges of a New Century.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 2000: 161-80.

Jameson, Fredric.  “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in Hal Foster, ed. The Anti- Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture.  Port Townsend, WA:  Bay Press, 1983.

Kermode, Frank.  The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction.  London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979.

Lacan, Jacques.  “Seminar on the ‘Purloined Letter,’” in Shirley F. Staton, ed.  Literary Theories in Praxis.  Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1987: 320-49.

McCraken, Grant. Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1988.

Marquez, Gabriel Garcia.  One Hundred Years of Solitude.  New York: Avon, 1971.

Moses, Michael Valdez.  The Novel and the Globalization of Culture.  New York: Oxford   Univ. Press, 1995.

Percy, Walker.  Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-help Book.  New York: Washington Square Press, 1984.

Postrel, Virginia. The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking        Commerce, Culture and Consciousness.  New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

Samuelson, Robert J. “The Afflictions of Afflluence.”  Newsweek, 22 March 2004: 45.

Stevens, Mick. “Liberated Iraqi” Cartoon.  The New Yorker.  31 May 2004: 28.

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