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The mask is a form of deception or illusion. Sometimes, it can be worn as both. It hides the true emotions of slaves, keeping the slave master from knowing what is going on in their minds. The mask also allows the slave to have an identity without the master’s detection. The mask gives the illusion that the slave is exactly how the masters believe, ignorant, incapable of true emotion, and unable to think for themselves.
A perfect depiction of the mask can be found in Charles Chestnutt’s The Passing of Grandison. Colonel, Grandison’s master, believed that he would never try to escape if allowed to go on a journey with his son, Dick. The colonel recommends to Dick that he bring Grandison along on his travels.
“What’s the matter with Grandison?” suggested the colonel. “ He’s
handy enough, and I reckon we can trust him. He’s too fond of
good eating to risk losing his regular meals; besides, he’s sweet
on your mother’s maid, Betty…” ( 536)
The colonel’s belief in Grandison as a faithful servant, proves that he was in fact deceived by the mask that Grandison was wearing.
In another passage, colonel is discussing with Grandison if he feels better off than the free negroes that don’t have “ no kind master to look after them and no mistress to give them medicine.” Grandison replies with an answer that reflecting his accomadation to colonel.
“ Well, I sh’d jes reckon I is better off, suh, dan dem low- down free
niggers, suh! Ef anybody ax’em who dey B’long ter, dey has ter say
nobody, er e’se lie erbout it. Anybody ax me who I B’longs ter, I
ain’ got no ‘casion ter be shame ‘ter tell ‘em, no, suh, ‘deed I ain’,
By Grandison replying in this matter, he used the mask to deceive the colonel and fool him into thinking that he never thought about being free. He was able to make the colonel believe that he was indeed content.
Not only was Grandison able to fool the colonel with the mask, but he was able to fool Dick as well. While they were up north, Dick warned Grandison about the abolitionists. He also tells him that it is his opportunity to see how the free negroes live. Dick asks Grandison if he met any of them.
“Yas, suh, I’s seen some of ‘em. But I don’ keer nuffin fer ‘em, suh.
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Dey’re differ’nt f’m de niggers down on’ way. Dey ‘lows dey’re free,
But dey ain’ got sense ‘nuff ter know ain’ half as well off as dey
Would be down, souf, whar dey’s be ‘preciated.
By making this statement, Grandison gave the illusion that slaves were appreciated and that life down south was “ the life”. This is unbelievable to Dick. Even when Grandison was approached by abolitionists he explains to Dick that “ dese yer abolitioners is jes’ pesterin’ de life out er me tryin’ ter git me ter run away.” He says that he isn’t paying them any attention and wonders when they will be returning home. What slave wouldn’t think about the chance of being free?
Upon Dick’s return home, Grandison is no where to be found. Dick assumes that Grandison finally got the picture and ran away. However, when Grandison returns, this leaves Dick perplexed. Grandison’s condition is described by Colonel.
“…You could have knocked him down with a feather. He seemed
pretty far gone-he could hardly talk above a whisper,- and I had to
give him a mouthful of whiskey to brace him up so he could tell his
Dick referrs to the kidnapping as “a little improbable”. The Colonel, however, is so blinded by the mask that he deems it as being “ the gospel truth”.
The ultimate display of the mask is when the Colonel discovers Grandison, the slave that would never run, was missing. Not only Grandison, but his family as well.
“ The colonel saw Grandison point him out to one of the crew of the
vessel…the latter shook his fist impotently- and the incident was
Grandison had no other choice but to wear the mask to hide his actual plans. Had they been revealed, not only could it have cost him his life, but his family’s as well. The mask in this sense, serves as a tool for survival.
Chestnutt’s use of vernacular in his writing also masks the true knowledge and identity of the slave. His style of writing, itself was a mask. Because the whites of that day honestly believed blacks to be ignorant, Grandison had to accomadate that idea. By doing this, he masked his true intelligence and his escape symbolized his self-definition.
Chestnutt’s use of the mask in this story caused his white audience to probably say “ Those black folks are something.” They would laugh and not get the message behind the mask which is “ We really aren’t as ignorant as you may think!!!”