Many years ago, I was in a preproduction meeting with The August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh, PA, for my play, The Sisters Grey. The then Artistic Director, Andre Guess III said, during our meeting which included a discussion about post-racial America, “Listen, I am fluent in whiteness.” After he made the statement, I laughed knowingly. Andre is African American like myself and we both, like many others, know that Double Consciousness, (a term coined by scholar W.E.B. Dubois) is a necessity for people of color. We must know, the language of “the man” in order to survive, let alone thrive. This knowledge often includes behavior, or in Black vernacular, “how to act.” Flip Wilson has a famous joke about knowing when to put on your “nigger coat” and when to take it off. This can be easily likened to comedian Dave Chappelle’s statement about making sure that he was “…dancing and not shuffling.” My most immersive experience in double consciousness and the question of the donning the “nigger coat” took place, no surprise here, in the south. While there I came face to face with living the message intoned by Claude McKay’s poem “We Wear the Mask.”
I’m a Jersey girl born and bred. I had never seen a confederate flag proudly flown in my home state or anywhere north of the Mason Dixon line for that matter. So. I was quite horrified and crest fallen when I saw one brazenly hanging from a window in a neighboring dormitory at my Alma mater. I was at a loss as to how to belong in a place where people embraced symbols of hatred. I was afraid of what the next four years would look like for me as I studied beside people who used the term “southern pride” to mask their adoration of White power. And, I wasn’t sure if I would have the strength and integrity to leave my nigger coat in the closet or whip it out to make the White kids feel comfortable with my Blackness. The experience was quite often exhausting and I found myself, much like the unnamed protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, hiding underground in my own way, which for me, was by rarely leaving my dorm room.
When I enter Gallery Aferro and tour fellow studio resident Dominique Duroseau’s exhibit Black Things in White Spaces, the juxtaposition of my ease and disease with awareness of my race and that comfort or discomforts’ dependency on where I am, is thrust into plain view.. Racial identification fatigue is a legitimate and genuine emotional condition. Surprisingly, my assumption that White folks don’t get tired from being White, was challenged by an on-going news story being developed by National Public Radio. During a recent NPR news story, I learned that fifty five percent of the Caucasian individuals they polled stated that they felt discriminated against because of their race. Will anyone consider the story of White things in Black spaces? What is the coat or mask that White people wear? And, is either a shroud of self-deprecation and shame like the “nigger coat” or the mask? This is certainly a question to explore as the shape and face of America continues to face itself our brave new world.