We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,–
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with 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!
- Paul Laurence Dunbar, We Wear the Mask
My manifesto on darkness is an attempt to talk about race in America through a theatrical piece. Since reading Toni Morrison’s book, Playing in the Dark, I have tried to see the occasions where discussions or portrayals of my race were “playing in the dark” in my own life. A perfect example is why I and others are considered Black or African-American. This misnomer makes the assumption that any ethnicity other than a European-American is not an American. This is inaccurate because I am American, born and raised in the U.S. Morrison (1992) states, “As a metaphor for transacting the whole process of Americanization, while burying its particular racial ingredients, this Africanist presence may be something the United States cannot do without. Deep within the word ‘American’ is its association with race… American means white, and Africanist people struggle to make the term applicable to themselves with ethnicity and hyphen after hyphen after hyphen… The American nation negotiated both its disdain and its envy in the same way Dunbar did: through a self-reflexive contemplation of fabricated, mythological Africanism.” This reflection is my musing over being a minority in the overall population but the majority of illiterate, impoverished, and imprisoned populations in America.
In the words of W.E.B Du Bois (1904), “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house” (p. 3). Yes, we just elected our first black President but what is the likelihood that we will ever elect one again? This is what is considered the dark comedy of this milestone in history. We can celebrate but are quickly somber by the reality that most political, civil, and social relations will elude race.
One of my favorite quotes from a professor of my undergrad history classes was, “We are a great nation in spite of our history and not despite…” As a country we are wrought with misunderstanding, fear, frustration, and confusion. These feelings often rear their ugly heads concerning difference, and what is more different than “white” and “black” Americans? As Du Bois states about our complex history, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a phase of this problem that caused the Civil War” (Du Bois, p. 13, 1904). Therefore, how do I negotiate the dark and the light.
If I could write a play, the first scene would be:
Narrator at center stage
the lights evade the narrator
until finally the narrator speaks
“Call me by my color dark for that is what I am…The dark compared to light.
I will let you describe me
to dream up exaggerations like blackface
and keep silent as you are engrossed, enchanted, enthralled, intrigued, and entertained by my darkness.”
Remember that darkness is quiet, an ever silent presence; but, a presence nonetheless. For example, Du Bois in his book, The Souls of Black Folks, states, “To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.” (Du Bois, p. 2, 1904). In America, race matters and diversity counts. Before Morrison’s study, race in literature was often not questioned nor explored; but rather hidden like a dark stain on the white dining room linens. Many black characters in literature are racialized and/or stereotyped; yet, race is unlikely to be a major theme in the plot. Race is rather used to highlight the differences between the minor Africanist characters who are portrayed as poor, silly, criminal, ignorant, and/or superstitious; in contrast to the major White American characters who are portrayed as well-to-do, smart, brave, beautiful, and forthright. In other words, the color/race of the the character means something to the author that is transferred to the reader. Morrison points out that most literature uses race as caricatures which is misinformed, ignorant, and/or exaggerated entertainment.
Although race was first conceived as this country was developing, the race concept and racism are some of the oldest social theories upheld in America from the 17th century to the present. At the same time our founding fathers agreed on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; they also agreed to participate in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and adopted the policy that a slave is only ⅗ of a person in the U.S. Scientists in the 18th century said race was genetic and manifested through genotype and phenotype characteristics such as skin color, behavior, and intelligence. There was a Negroid, Mongoloid, and Caucasoid, American Indian, and Malayan race. They tried to explain difference with science and Darwinism; as a result, miscegenation laws were enforced so that the races were separated because they were considered different. Current historians, anthropologists, and sociologist scholars understand that race is a social concept to maintain hierarchy and stratification in America.
The American dichotomy is the concept of slavery and freedom. While, African-Americans have been freed from chattel slavery a little more than 140 years, freedom still evades most due to lack of education, poverty, and imprisonment.
A voice comes from the dark.
“I may not understand,
but I know why I was silenced
in order to be free, the founders felt that
they had to enslave
you, have your freedom
now let my people go.”
Light center stage on narrator
“I will no longer be silent or in the shadows
1954, 1968, 1972, 2005, 2009 will come.”
When I first read Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, I first concentrated on her overall message. Yet, it wasn’t until I really started to delve in and understand the text that Morrison began to explain her thoughts on race. For instance, she states, “The need to establish difference stemmed not only from the Old World but from a difference in the New. What was distinctive in the New was, first of all, its claim to freedom and, second, the presence of the unfree within the heart of democratic experiment – the critical absence of democracy, its echo, shadow, and silent force in the political and intellectual activity of some not-Americans. The distinguishing features of the not-Americans were their slave status, their social status – and their color. It was not simply that this slave population had a distinctive color; it was that this color “meant” something (Morrison, 1992).” She eloquently explains her research and literary critic to unearth the underlying messages of race by American literary giants in order to better understand the connections with attitudes and policies concerning race (formal and informal) in America. For instance, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, had a central black character yet his voice and perspective was told through Huck Finn’s interpretation and stereotypes.
Through her research, she found that there is still a shadow among the dark. Especially, when the experiment of democracy is still being conducted and attacked everyday by private interests—that is how she was able to write Recitatif. She showed that the characters, plot, and journey have no significance if they do not have attributes whether they are black or white. These colors mean something in everyday America.
Race is an example of the highest forms of human rationalization. We make differences when there is similarity. We make similarities when there is difference. What is “White” when it constitutes such different cultures, religions, and traditions spanning North America, Europe, Middle East, Latin America, North and South Africa, Australia, Asia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands. What is “Black” when it constitutes such differences as well spanning the Caribbean, Central America, Latin America, Africa, South America, Europe, North America, Australia, and Middle East. Morrison (1992) states, “Images of blackness can be evil and protective, rebellious and forgiving, fearful and desirable—all of the self-contradictory features of the self.” Race gives us a finite understanding of ourselves as opposed to the uncertainty of infinite possibilities. The Africanist character is a surrogate and enabler for tangible and finite characteristics such as desire and fear. In other words, Race/color is a physical attribute but also a social and mental characteristic.
Center stage with bright lights on narrator.
“We would rather be compared to each other
in order to define our finiteness
in opposition to otherness
rather than embrace the infinite
Lawd, have mercy on us
for trying to define our own souls
Lights turn different colors depending on the narrators command
“It’s black, red, yellow, brown, white…
a complicated mixture of light and dark.”
DuBois states beautifully, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” As an African American there is a dual nature to your identity. You are dark in the midst of light; you are enslaved in some sense but free in others; you have African roots but American born and bred.
So after reflecting on this issue, I can better understand who I am as an African and an American. It’s a balancing act not to be overwhelmed or be torn apart from this inner battle. I like both sides to my human nature. I know what it means to be multicultural. Yet, I can not let either side have control of my entire being. I am a fluidic identity of both African American as opposed to a static definition of either.
narrator at center stage
Dances in and out of the spotlight
To represent moving in and out
Of Black and American identities
music and dance
music and dance
Then the narrator is flooded with lights
Blinded and surprised
Narrator speaks from out of the dark
Narrator: “Call me by my color dark for that is what I am…
to you, and you, and you, and you, and you.”
light spotlights wherever the narrator points
P.S. It’s important to be cognizant of discussions or portrayals of multicultural issues “playing in the dark” in our own lives.
Dunbar, P.L. (1993). The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Joanne M. Braxton, ed. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
DuBois, W.E.B (1904). The Souls of Black Folks. A.C. McClurg & Co. Publishing: Chicago, IL. pgs. 1-265.
Morrison, T. (1992). Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Vintage Books: New York City, NY. pgs. 1-91.
Morrison, T. (1992). Recitatif. Vintage Books: New York City, NY. pgs. 1-91.