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 over-wise, 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 L. Dunbar, 1895/1896
Near to the sting of slavery’s institutional clutch, Paul Laurence Dunbar likely understood why his literacy–his ability to read and write using the conventions of standard English–were important. Born in 1872, he was less than one full generation away from emancipation. In 98 words, Dunbar reveals our resistance to the world’s gaze–the performative nature of our being…masked from view…as protection while we rise…moving Up from Slavery like that 1901 work…steadily improving…in the name of freedom.
Fast forward to 1922, monuments to the “lifting the veil” sentiment of the day celebrated reading as agency while also memorializing the shroud of secrecy that was still expected at that moment. With heavy pages resting on his lap, we get the sense that the younger man was being protected by the elder as he developed and learned. Anticipating that he could emerge strong in form and in fashion, the kneeling young body would rise stronger in stature through sharpened mind. Literacy was then and remains a threat to domination…which is perhaps why the elder statesmen took time to reveal the younger greatness of educated and liberated humanity. Revealing to the one standing before the cloaked body, the brilliance of the person beneath the veil. Revealing to the one crouching beneath the cloak, his own more enlightened self…allowing his own pupils to dilate gradually as this new status was being established.
is not erasure or a rendering of a man to be invisible,
it is not separation (segregation) for selfish purpose,
it is not the source of a supernatural strength or power,
it is its own protection from premature or over exposure
to the dangers of what lies beyond the veil…
…though to the one beneath the curtain
it may feel like being cast into gripping blindness or suffocation…
by an out-of-touch generation.
Freedom’s Journal (1827 – 1829) tells this story…of cloaked literacy…the public and still closed societies that fought to be fully literate–telling stories beyond oral tradition but permanently making marks on paper that stand until this moment. Pre-legislated, freedom was about knowing what the master thought you didn’t know. Post-1865, literacy is the rhetoric of freedom made public in the 1863 presidential clauses that proclaim emancipation. There exists now, like then, a less obtuse reality that no one secures freedom if they cannot read and debate with reasonable acuity and political reference. Knowing reveals a landscape of change: the geology and geography of evolved spaces, the sociology of change and the culture of change provide a road (like a map) that leads to greater understanding of deeply embedded treasures that may be unlocked by literacy.
Literacy has always been its own activism, especially wherever freedom bells toll, like in Philadelphia (See Bacon & McClish, 2000). Many cite Frederick Douglass’ story of literary prowess and ingenue…I agree that his words and letters, speeches and narratives are inspired and inspirational. I however want to amplify Sojourner Truth whose 1851 “I am woman rights” speech at Akron was doctored, appropriated, published and rebranded as “Aint I a Woman” in a language not quite her own. Alas, “even when marginalized rhetors employ the forms of the dominant class, their rhetoric does not necessarily conform to prevailing societal norms. Acts of appropriation should not be seen merely as “borrowing” but as reinvention and transformation” (Bacon & McClish, 2000, p.21).
Dr. Gholdy Muhammed extends this explanation in her work Cultivating Genius by painting a picture of criticality that allows us to know a tertiary purpose in being literate: “to detect sophistry or falsehood or fallacies contained in the language of others…putting intellect into action” (p. 115).
Liberatory praxis–practices of freedom–embraces literacy. These literacies–language, racial, media, technical, scientific and numeric–require disciplinary criticality and reference as norms. Not like chains for compliance but models that shape paths. Whether you cite bell hooks or Bettina Love–the elder statesperson or the younger mentored mind–theory makes us free. In embracing theory, we acknowledge powerful histories, values, beliefs and practices that were designed to incubate greatness. Being free will always be better than becoming free.
Bacon, J., & McClish, G. (2000). Reinventing the master’s tools: Nineteenth‐century African‐American literary societies of Philadelphia and rhetorical education. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 30(4), 19-47.
Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. Scholastic Incorporated.