I had never given any thought to the costume nor mask I wore on Labor Day Carnival many years ago. I remember the feeling I had as if it was yesterday. I felt free, wild, and as if was I'm having an outer body experience. I remember thinking no one will ever recognize me nor will I ever see these people again. It was truly liberating. I know I was not my usual self and if my mother ever was to see me that day she would have been appalled. I am quiet and reserved and often told that I act shy. That day is not regrettable and one I will cherish very fondly. It felt invigorating not to be myself.
The mask I wore that Labor Day played a significant role in my behavior. It did more than disguised me, it protected me from being recognized and provided me with what I thought was a logical reason to misbehave and then return to my usual self the next business day.
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My experience and the uses of mask in African-American vernacular tradition share a similarity. Both my experience and the literatures use masking as a disguise. In many of the readings indictment, religion and spirituality were also used as a masking to disguise the suffering of the enslaved. Their bodies were bound to earth but their souls belonged to a different realm.
A folktale that uses the mask of indictment is "You Talk Too Much, Anyhow". A negro says to a turtle "Good morning, Mr. Turtle" and the turtle surprising responded by saying "Good morning, Mr. man." Startled by the talking turtle, the negro then said "I didn't know you could talk." The turtle then replied "What I say about you niggers is you talk too much." The negro then runs to his master to tell him the shocking discovery. The master though unconvinced that there is such thing as a talking turtle decided to go to the creek but, on one condition and that is if the turtle did not speak he would beat the slave half to death. Finally, the master and the slave arrived at the creek and the slave proceeded to talk to the turtle and unfortunately, there was no response. The master then did as promised and gives the slave a beating. After his beating, the slave went back to the creek to ask the turtle why he did not say anything and the turtle replied "Well, that's what I say about you Negros, you talk too much anyhow." The immediate accusation of being talkative goes unnoticed and is proven to be true by the actions of the slave. The slave did not spend one moment to ponder what was said by the turtle. The turtle knew there would be implications if he did not talk when the master arrived and chose to stay quiet anyway. There were no guarantees or promises that the he would talk and because of that the slave suffered the consequences through no fault of the turtle. A harmless reptile stated a bold accusation that was proven to be true through his trouble making behavior. He provoked the situation further knowing that when the master arrived he would not speak and failed to inform the slave of such. The slave was certain the turtle would talk when the master was there which is why he agreed to such circumstances the master proposed.
A ballad that I found quite powerful is "The Signifying Monkey".
A monkey insults a lion to great measures with absolutely no fear until he is captured and is then able to quickly escape a possible deadly situation by being clever.
The monkey was able to rouse the lion by informing him of what the elephant may have allegedly said about him. Not once did the lion doubt the negative information he was hearing from the monkey. He was more infuriated with the notion that he was being talked about in a manner that was insulting his character. The lion believing everything he heard pursues the elephant with vengeance. Unfortunately, victory was not his reward.
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Lion said, You big old no-good so-and-so,
It's either you or me.
Lion let out a solid roar
And bopped Elephant with hi paw.
Elephant just took his trunk
And busted old Lion's jaw.
Lion let out another roar,
Reared up six feet tall.
Elephant just kicked him in the belly
And laughed to see him drop and fall.
Lion rolled over,
Cropped Elephant by the throat
Elephant just shook him loose
And butted him like a goat,
Then he tromped him and he stomped him
Till the Lion yelled, Oh no!
And it was near-high sunset
When Elephant let Lion go (Gates and Mckay 43). . .
When the lion is home, the monkey proceeds to taunt the lion on his defeat. Without any restraint or control, the monkey is relentless in telling him how pitiful he looks and states he looks more dead than alive. He then proceeds to tell lion that his look is as pitiful as one who has been locked up and charged with a third-degree. I think the more the monkey spoke of the horrible outcome of the situation it gave him power, control and vigor to then threaten the lion.
You ain't no king to me.
Facts, I don't think that you
Can even as much as roar-.
And if you try I'm liable
To come down out of this tree and
Whip your tail some more.
The Monkey started laughing
And jumping up and down (Gates and Mckay 44). . .
Pride and gossip played a major role in this tale. The monkey was very clever indeed. He knew his strength and weakness and used it to his advantage. This is why the monkey stayed perched in the tree when telling his tales. He was sure to be beaten if he was on the ground with the lion. He also knew that his words were powerful enough to create such an outcome. The moment the monkey fell after threatening the lion he knew what he had to say to ensure his safety. The lion had a curios personality and because of that the monkey was able to escape.
Lion's pride was overwhelmingly strong that he did not consider the validity of what the monkey was saying. The lion was convinced that he could not be beaten which is why he approached the elephant in such a manner. His title of "king" was comprised and he had to prove that he was the only one entitled to that label. To his surprise the lion never thought the elephant would have beaten him so easily. The title of king has been stripped away. His powerful roar and sharp claws was no match to the elephant's trunk and paws. A defenseless creature that appears harmless and is considered a non threatening animal is proven to be stronger than the animal that holds the title of king and is avoided by all because of its wrath and fury.
The monkey much like the turtle in "You Talk Too Much, Anyhow" appears feeble, innocent and nonthreatening yet both demonstrated and possessed a personality that can potentially dehumanize another. Both should be avoided. No creature or person should be underestimated due to its appearance or size because they may be more powerful than those that are known or appear to have strength.
"Walk Together Children" is a spiritual poem that encompasses religion and spirituality to disguise the suffering of the enslaved. The language used instills strength and hope. Children of God should not get weary of the troubles and sufferings endured. Instead, the enslaved should unite through singing and talking for there is a better place for all of them in the Promise Land. The enslaved should not be disillusioned by what lays before them because there is something wonderful waiting for them in a better place.
Gwineter mourn and never tire,
Mourn and never tire,
Mourn and never tire.
There's a great camp meeting in the Promised Land (Gates and Mckay 9). . .
The Promised Land is a gift from God, a divine place longed-for place where complete satisfaction and happiness will be achieved. Therefore, all of God's children, followers should get ready and be prepared for when that day comes. Something better awaits them and one must not get weary.
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Oh, get you ready children,
Don't you get weary,
Get you ready children,
Don't you get weary,
We'll enter there, oh, children,
Don't you get weary,
There's a great camp meeting in the Promised Land (Gates and Mckay 9).
The masking of indictment and religion in the vernacular tradition readings are apparent in many aspects of our life. Sometimes we subconsciously and consciously wear a mask to disguise the emotions and truths of our existence. For some people, it is a protection and strength from the harshness of reality and for others it is a way to profess our true intentions.