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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