The Black Woman’s Burden: Embodying and Escaping the Myth

Why should the world be over-wise/ In counting all our tears and sighs/ Nay, let them only see us, while/ We wear the mask. -Paul Laurence Dunbar, We Wear the Mask

Onstage, actors in traditions like commedia dell’arte and Greek tragedy, have utilized masks to connect and represent their characters. In Angola, the Yaka people use masks during religious ceremonies to invoke and invite spirits into their celebrations and rituals. More recently, popular horror films such as The Purge and Scream have used masking to symbolize the normal man’s almost supernatural change into a murderous god-like figure.

Though masks have been used historically to terrify, to cloak, to worship, and more- this essay will focus on the utilization of masks to embody. Masks are primarily used to help the wearer embody a certain mythical character- this embodiment usually allows the wearer to simultaneously connect and disconnect from themselves in order to make a larger point about the society that we live in.

In this essay, I would like to focus on the use of black, female masking and performance as a means of embodying and escaping racist/sexist trauma in Harriet Jacobs 1861 ‘Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl’, and Beyonce’s 2016 visual album ‘Lemonade.’ Both works were created at vastly different times and this affects the level of agency that each storyteller is allowed to have. Jacobs is a past slave writing this text only ten years after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. Beyoncé is an internationally renowned singer and actress, who produced Lemonade in an America that has allowed her to use the power of capitalism to become worth 372 million. These are stark differences that must be taken into consideration while reading this paper.

However, I would argue that the trickle-down effect of slavery has still resulted in a country where Beyoncé is still racially oppressed, even as a millionaire. Beyoncé has produced ‘Lemonade’ in a year where, as of November 2016, 420 people of color have been murdered by the police (Guardian, 2016); Lemonade is also produced in a year where filmmaker Ava Duvernay created the 13th- a film about the mass incarceration of black men and women, which stems from Jim Crow Laws and “post-slavery” discriminatory practices such as convict leasing. In addition to this, both Harriet Jacobs and Beyoncé share the experience of being African American women; this intersectional identity forces them to deal with similar myths, prejudices and stereotypes about their sexuality, intelligence and womanhood even though their gap in time is substantial.

In trying to understand these texts, it is important to start with the origin. What tradition created the thought behind black masking, as a whole? This history begins in American slavery, where 10.7 million African slaves were forced to leave their native country and become property that labored and breeded for their slave masters in the plantation south. As “foreign property”, slaves were forced to live under various mythologies and archetypes created by the white slave masters. These myths about blackness and civilization were used to justify the violence and brutality that existed in slavery. In “Arn’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South”, Dr. Deborah Gray White writes that “the black woman’s position at the nexus of America’s sex and race mythology has made it most difficult for her to escape the mythology” (White, 1985).

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The intersectional issues of black women (the oppression of being black, and the oppression of being a woman) made the plantation especially difficult to navigate. These are the conditions that the black, masking tradition sprung out of- a history of oppression and a history, where speaking and living truth could result in death and torture.

The “black cultural tradition of masking is a technique of double meaning that allows the storyteller to make accessible a hidden  message only to those readers attuned to the secretive signs embedded within the story” (Whitsitt, 2010). Masking, in black culture, has been a tactic for survival. This tactic for survival has made it difficult, historically, for black people to be truthful about who they are. “A culture of domination is necessarily a culture where lying [and deceitfulness] are an acceptable social norm” (hooks, 1986).  During slavery “slaves often told ‘lies’ to white oppressors to keep from being brutally punished or murdered. They learned that the art of hiding behind a false appearance could be useful…Slave narratives testify that the ability to deceive was a requirement for survival” (hooks, 1986).

Harriet Jacobs, in her writing of ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’ uses multiple tactics in the text, and in the making of the text, in order to mentally and emotionally survive. When you look at the development of the text, Jacobs worked closely with her editor Lydia Maria Child to create a story where she could detach herself as much as possible from the text. In the original publication, Jacobs name was not even included on the cover: her only credit was the title which she called ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself” (Yellin, 2000). In a similar vein, Jacobs chose to utilize pseudonyms throughout the whole text changing her name to “Linda Brent”, and changing her slave master and abuser, Dr. James Norcom, to “Dr. Flint.”

Though these artistic choices are not necessarily truthful, they do point out the necessity of “masking” the black, female self in order to survive. At the time of this writing, Dr. Norcom would have still been pursuing Jacobs. Also, since Jacobs lived during the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slave masters to pursue their runaway slaves to the North, there was still a chance that she could have been forced back into slavery.

Even in current American society, black cultural hiding must be practiced under certain circumstances to survive. Originally used to describe bilingual speakers who go back and forth between their native language and an additional language they have learned, ‘code switching’ is now used to describe the necessity for people of color to change their normal speech to accommodate hegemonic belief systems about acceptable language and behavior.

In Lemonade, Beyoncé’s song “Sorry” is an example of code switching, or “masking”. The progression of the song shows the amount of “masking” that must be done to convince her and her cheating husband that she no longer cares about his infidelity. The chapter is appropriately called “Apathy.” After beginning with a few words about her “funeral, now that he’s killed her”, Beyoncé opens up the video with Serena Williams, dancing around her while Beyoncé sits on her throne repeating “I ain’t sorry/I ain’t sorry/I ain’t sorry.” Serena Williams acts as a black, female representation of unapology (as she has been in her career; see Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen Kane’) along with other black women, and Beyoncé sings “Headed to the club, I ain’t thinking/bout you /I don’t give a fuck, chucking my deuces up/I ain’t thinking bout you/I ain’t thinking bout you” (Beyonce, 2016).  The beginning of this song continues with this bravado of the mythical strong black woman, and then as the steady beat fades and the last stanza comes, Beyoncé can’t mask her hurt any longer and admits “Suicide before you see this tear fall down my eyes” (Beyoncé, 2016). The mythical, strong black woman would rather kill herself than show her true emotions to the world, and this technique is one of lying and “masking” to survive. At the end of the song, Beyoncé stares at the camera in a close up and says “He only want me when I’m not there/He better call Becky with the good hair/ He better call Becky with the good hair” (Beyoncé, 2016). This last point reveals that Beyoncé isn’t just upset because she is woman who has been cheated on by her husband. Beyoncé reveals that this hurt is racialized- her husband cheated on her because she is a black woman; in essence, her husband cheated on her because she is not a white woman. The extent of her “maskery” must happen because “`the impossible task confronts the black woman…if she is rescued from the myth of the Negro, the myth of woman traps her. If she escapes the myth of woman, the myth of the Negro still ensnares her” (White, 1985). These myths and this disconnect from black men and white women has left the black woman “thus exposed to…become their victim” (White,1985).

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When black women are put into places where they do not feel safe, they take on the old mythology, which is a false one created to oppress rather than uplift. When Beyoncé does this consciously she is protecting herself and the other women in the video (including Serena Williams) who have also been hurt by racialized and gendered oppression; the best way to do this is to take on the old myth of being the strong black woman. “This black woman does not have the same fears, weaknesses and insecurities as other women, but believes herself to be and is, in fact, stronger emotionally than most men.. In other words, she is superwoman” (White, 1985).

In Jacobs account, Jacobs often deals with a similar need to mask based on the violence of her white mistress and slave master. Both relationships (Jacobs as black, female slave with white mistress, and Jacobs as black female slave with white male slave master) do not provide a safe space for her. Jacobs spends a whole chapter discussing the gender wars that she must endure. Once Mrs. Flint took her into a room and asked her to “tell her all that has passed between the Master and her” (Jacobs, 1861). Jacobs, a young girl of fifteen at the time, responded truthfully and even thought that Mrs. Flint would protect her because she was crying and seemed hurt that Dr. Flint would cheat on her, and sexually abuse Jacobs. However, Jacobs wasn’t “comforted by her assurances [because] her experiences in slavery had filled her with distrust. She knew she could not expect kindness or confidence from her under the circumstances in which she was placed” (Jacobs, 1861).

Jacobs, as a result of the abuse she endured, chose to give herself to Mr. Sands. “You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another” (Jacobs, 1861). I would add that black women are also “entirely subject to the will”, myths, and ideas of white people and men, when they are in unsafe spaces that don’t allow for them to show up as they truly are. The action of having sex with Mr. Sands before marriage was disgusting to Jacobs because she was a Christian and longed to be chaste. However, in slavery, Jacobs was not allowed to uphold her belief systems. She had to protect herself. This protection resulted in Jacobs taking on the dangerous Jezebel black, female myth in the same way that Beyoncé took on the black, female superhero myth. The Jezebel myth is one of “a black female governed almost entirely by her libido” (White, 1985).  This myth was utilized by white slave masters to justify their rape of black, female slaves. Under the institution of both physical and mythical slavery, where racist and androcentric violence and perception is typical, where can the black woman really be herself? As Beyoncé ends with in the last chapter entitled “Redemption”: “You’re the magician. Pull me back together again, the way you cut me in half. Make the woman in doubt disappear. Pull the sorrow from between my legs like silk. Knot after knot after knot. The audience applauds…but we can’t hear them” (Beyoncé, 2016).

Beyoncé and Jacobs are forced to exist under various myths as a result of the violence inflicted on them from the men, and white women, in their life. Even as this world exists, where they seem to have no choice, both women are able to find avenues to make “masking” choices that uplift. This “embodiment masking” helps them to connect more deeply to their emotions, and the messages that they are trying to convey.

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By calling the text “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself” Jacobs is able to keep herself safe by distance…but through this process, she is also able to mythically speak to the experiences of all black, slave girls. Jacobs writes in 1857 to her Quaker friend Amy Post “I have placed myself before you to be judged as a woman ….not to tell you what I have heard but what I have seen- and what I have suffered- and if there is any sympathy to give- let it be given to the thousands of Slave Mothers that are still in bondage…let it plead for their helpless children…” (Yellin, 1987). The desired audience for Jacobs text was sympathetic, Northern white women who would be interested in helping her to abolish slavery; knowing this, Jacobs realized the importance of changing the dangerous myths that white women held about black, female slaves. Jacobs engaged in consistent mythmaking throughout the story to embody the Slave Mother, and create a place where black, female slaves could be empathized with and advocated for.

One chapter really powerfully evokes the Slave Mother archetype. In “The Slaves New Year’s Day”, Jacobs draws up a scene where New Year’s Day is a “pleasant season” of “friendly wishes” and “children bringing their little offerings and raising their rosy lips for a caress.” (Jacobs, 1861). This is the New Year’s Day of a white woman during slavery. Jacobs juxtaposes this with the horror that the Slave Mother must endure on that day. New Year’s Day, for the Slave Mother, “comes laden with peculiar sorrows…she may be an ignorant creature, degraded by the system that has brutalized her from childhood; but she has a mother’s instincts, and is capable of feeling a mother’s agonies” (Jacobs, 1861). In this passage, Jacobs advocates for the Slave Mother revealing her as a woman who has endured sorrows that no one should have to go through. In this moment, though she never mentions herself, she takes on the archetype of the Slave Mother. It is one laden with pain and “no words wherewith to comfort”, but it is one that is necessary to understand the tribulation of the black, female slave. By disconnecting herself from the text, and drawing up the mythological figure of the Slave Mother “sitting on her cold, cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her the next morning” she is able to evoke a greater sense of empathy from the Northern woman and serve her community. The Slave Mother is a myth of loss that is steeped in the truth, unlike the myths that have been traditionally forced onto the black female. Slave Mother characterizes black, female vulnerability. In “Hold Up” Beyoncé creates an image of the black woman that focuses on how the various events of loss and despair for oppressed black women can transform into a gloriously complex anger.

Though “Hold Up” is one of the first songs on the ‘Lemonade’ album, and is so far away from the slightly saccharine ending of ‘Lemonade’ where Beyoncé is shown feeding cake to her husband at their wedding, and playing with her child, it is the song that embodies a collective black, female anger outside of the usual, oppressive American myths. In the song, Beyoncé positions herself as the Yoruba goddess Oshun, and positioning herself as a goddess allows her to explore the full extent of her anger, hurt and betrayal. The chapter is entitled “Intuition.” At the beginning of the song, Beyoncé appears on the steps of a pantheonic building, exiting out of two golden doors. A flood of water bursts out behind her trailing past her legs, and wetting her dress though she doesn’t seem concerned with it. This is mythologically reminiscent of childbirth, where infants are birthed from water, in addition to Aphrodite (the goddess of love and passion) who was also birthed in water. This is, also, of course representing Oshun by “reflecting the power of women spiritually. Beyoncé shows this reflection in the first of two baptisms throughout the video, and emerges as an orisha”, which is a god in Yoruba.

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Beyoncé sings about her betrayal in the video, and does the opposite of code switching- she practices bad, inappropriate behaviors like taking bats from little boys and smashing car windows. Though many could say that this video just reaffirms the “angry black woman” myth, Beyoncé spins on it utilizing many different layers of emotion. She mixes anger and bad behavior with vulnerability going from “I don’t wanna lose my pride, but/I’mma fuck me up a bitch” to “I’m not too/perfect/to ever feel this worthless.” At one point in the song, she even inspires joy to black kids on the block. She busts a fire hydrant supplying all the kids with water and she skips in slow motion with a bat in her hand, affirming that her emotions don’t have to be feared- they can be celebrated.

The major point is that Beyoncé can be whole for her community and herself while experiencing layers of emotion in the midst of the pain that comes from infidelity; she can focus on herself and “hop out of bed and get her swag on/look in the mirror and say “What’s Up?/What’s Up?” (Beyoncé, 2016). She can ultimately focus on herself and her needs. When Beyoncé creates this mythology of the complex, layered black woman who can check in with herself, and take joy in her anger and her emotions, she is embracing “women’s physicality toward the archetypal…discussing tribulations shared through generations of mothers and daughters” (Pareles, 2016). Beyoncé, like Jacobs, creates empowering masks for her fellow, black women and better their experience as well as her own. By recognizing the diversity of her own archetype, she frees other women from feeling the need to fit into a single myth and experience.

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The black, female body was born underneath the white and male gaze in slavery, and this gaze created the harmful myths of Jezebel, Mammy, the angry black woman, the numb, black superhero and many others. These archetypes were used to justify violence against women and against blackness. Black women have been taking their mythologies back for a long time- from Jacobs to Beyoncé. In their worlds, they get to choose when and how their bodies are politicized, and mythologized- and they are choosing masks that heal and celebrate their own.


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