Masked Illusions: An Examination of Performance Traditions and W.E.B. Du Bois' Notion of Double Consciousness

By Henry, Genyne | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 1999 | Go to article overview

Masked Illusions: An Examination of Performance Traditions and W.E.B. Du Bois' Notion of Double Consciousness


Henry, Genyne, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Masked Illusions: An Examination of Performance Traditions and W.E.B. DuBois' Notion of Double Consciousness

Got one mind for white folks to see,

`Nother for what I know is me,

He don't know, he don't know my mind.

lines from an old Negro Song

When African slaves arrived in America, unfamiliar with the language, the land and the people, they were forced and encouraged to negotiate their identities and adopt qualities of being completely unfamiliar to them. They were forced to bury their language in the garbled cries of fear that all too often echoed the slave ships and slave quarters. Performance traditions were censored and often restricted by the dominant culture. Events such as burying their dead, marriage, and paying homage to ancestors became disguised and ultimately very secret. Each culture's historical past speaks to the devised strategies utilized to insure the survival and transmission of history, consciousness and identity. Historically, the cultural task of masking such horrific pain has been passed from one generation of African Americans to another. African Americans have constantly negotiated historic events in an effort to shape their racial consciousness and identity. According to scholar Earl Lewis, "Most of us are engaged in the awkward process of simultaneously negotiating the past, present and future." (Lewis, 356) Such negotiation is critical in the identity construction of a constant performer.

The concept of performance is entering the literary arena as a special topic that is attracting speculative study and interest. In recent years, as a post-modern shift in consciousness has stimulated processional, interdisciplinary, and intergeneric studies, a growing number of scholars have found "performance" to be a particularly fruitful type of human action to investigate. (Fine and Speer, 2) My primary interests in performance center around its subtle emergence and great significance in the African American literary and film traditions. Presently, the focus on process has expanded and intensified as performance theorists probe the means by which discourse can be separated from one context and recontextualized in another situation.

I have coined the term constant performer in an effort to recognize a realm of performance exclusive to individuals resisting social, political, cultural and, sometimes, gender-based constructs in African, African American, and American cultures. Constant performers, as I have defined them, are extensions of a multifaceted true self and external revelations of the unforeseen. The question that presents itself in the midst of their performance is what constitutes the identity of constant performers. The constant performer can be described metaphysically as a multilayered personality with distinguishable consciousnesses. This multilayered personality is compounded by experiences, memories, and complexities; however, the constant performer's consciousness is plagued by duality based solely on cultural ramifications. Lewis asserts, "the subject or self should be considered singular and positions of the self multiple -- or multipositional" and "the process of identity formation is neither linear nor always intuitive." (Lewis, 356). The constructed personae constant performers present on stage continuously re-position or enigmatically reveal their interiors through performance. The entire collective selfhood of the performing individual which exists in the layered depths of constant performers can never seen as a whole; it always presents itself in segmented portions.

Hidden beneath the smiles and tucked behind the cackling grins are subjects torn between two worlds which mercilessly reject, embrace, and ostracize the individual all at the same time. According to W.E.B. Du Bois, these two worlds create an internal conflict in the African American individual between what is "African" and what is "American." Critic Dickson D. Bruce, Jr. makes the claim that, for Du Bois, the essence of a distinctive African consciousness is its spirituality, a spirituality based in Africa but revealed among African Americans in their folklore, their history of patient suffering, and their faith.

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