Ritual Specialists and The Modern Masquerade

Tiffany D. Pogue, PhD
5 min readSep 10, 2021
The image features an Egungun mask from Nigeria from ca. 1950

Masking is a quintessential part of traditional African life. Masquerades, as traditions, are ritualized performances of those cultural truths that serve the holistic needs of the communities within which they occur (Chielotam, 2015). According to Molinta (2014), masquerades help shape, and influence, a people’s social universe. In masquerades, designated community folk are selected — and initiated — into the secrets of the mask they will eventually perform. During these performances, individuals become closer to the Spirit World, occasionally becoming possessed by the Spirits themselves.

As is the case with other African traditions that have been reimagined and reshaped in other parts of the African World, masking has traveled across the Atlantic to manifest in the Americas in ways that deserve our continued investigation and exploration (see for example Lovejoy, Innes, & Bogar, 2012). In this consideration, might I suggest that we can find the tradition of the masquerade is some performances of Black actors?

Recalling that traditional African masquerades communicate deep cosmological understandings beyond entertainment, I opine that there are some instances where Black actors engage in a kind of Diasporic masquerade. Take for example an interview Spike Lee gave about Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm X. Lee tells the story of Washington delivering one of Malcom’s speeches and going beyond what had been written in the script. Lee asked Washington what happened, and the actor was unable to explain how or why he’d continued past his mark. Lee says there was a point where “Malcolm came into his soul.” When asked directly how it felt to play Malcolm, Washington once said “it stays with you” and elsewhere mentioned that he felt that he had talked with Malcolm a little bit, “as strange as it sounds.”

What I think we are witnessing in Washington’s offering of Malcolm is a masquerade that both performs and presents to us cosmological truths of freedom and struggle. The telling of these truths is work that exists between the living actor and the Spirit. This is what both Washington and Lee describe.

In another case, we find that Michael B. Jordan sought therapy after his performance of Erik /Killmonger in Marvel’s Black Panther. In an article in Men’s Health magazine Jordan describes how he had isolated himself for periods of time to be able to sustain the character as written, but also says that “at the end of each scene, ‘I didn’t have an escape plan, either,’ ‘When it was all over, I think just being in that kind of mind state… It caught up with me.’

In both Washington’s and Jordan’s cases we may be witnessing a kind of spiritual interaction that is an essential part of the masquerading process. In fact, when describing the role of masquerades, Chielotam (2015) suggests that those playing mask should be spiritually fortified because of the nature of masquerades themselves. In addition to their own spiritual fortification, traditionally, there would have also been ritual specialists or shrine attendants present whose job it is to help ease the transition of spirit away from the masquerading individual. That specialist would be responsible for recognizing the actor’s need to be released from the masquerade so that it would not carry over into the individual’s “mundane” life.

This week, we learned of the death of actor Michael K. Williams* whose acting has been described as phenemonally realistic and accurate. Williams has been known to dive into the portrayals of troubled characters — often discussing similarities between the struggles in their lives as akin to his own. Traditionally, the identity of the individual performing a masquerade was hidden from the public because in the moment of performance, they were no longer that person — instead, they took on the identity of spirits known and unknown. But Williams’ struggles were made public. He had played dark characters like The Wire’s Omar, before, and had found the darkness in the characters hard to shake. According to Williams, the lines had sometimes gotten blurred.

After playing Montrose Freeman on “Lovecraft Country”, Williams openly sought therapy, in what he described as something new for him. He reasoned that the drug and alcohol addictions that had plagued him had not been problems, so much as they had become evidence of the real issues, and he was ready to address them. What those who knew him closest suggest, is that Williams was a kind soul, full of nurturing energy and light. He supported his colleagues and friends closely and was able to explore the deepest kinds of joy.

Knowing this makes me see him as one playing masquerade — blurring lines between spiritual and mundane…between joy and pain…between life and death in ways that can be healing for the community but dangerous for the masquerader without ritual support.

I wonder what would have happened if he had had a ritual specialist.

What if we had one?

I want to be clear that I am not speaking of those people who are becoming increasingly popular who openly advertise their performative spirituality and charge premium prices without a lineage to claim or years of investment to demonstrate their learning. I am speaking of the elders whose quiet spirituality is evidenced through their full, rich lives. I am thinking of a person who the community children speak of with respectful admiration and whose very presence can cause all of us to stand a bit taller and prouder in our carriage. I am speaking of folks who move without the need for a title and who will offer a meal and kind word prepared with consideration and deliberate contemplation.

What if we all had one?

What if we all had someone to gently remind us that we needed a good cleaning from the darkness we sometimes carry while they prepared the bath they already knew we would accept. What if we all helped clear the weeds from the small backyard plot where the herbs they used in their cooking and their work grew? What if we sat on the steps of their porch while they watched the comings and goings of the neighborhood with unspoken judgement and gentle, soft sounds of approval — or not.

I do not want us to lose the lessons of the masquerade. It is a performance of life and a performance for life, but it does not exist without the ritual specialist to make sure that it is done safely and correctly for the good of us all.

Unfortunately, some of us no longer know we need the masquerade, but we participate in them daily — without adequate coverage — nonetheless.

I would not assume to speak for Michael Kenneth Williams nor for the people that knew him the best. These are my ponderings regarding the role of ritual specialists and what might plague a people without them.

This will become a portion of my forthcoming book Roots and Writing: Literacy in Black Spiritual Lives.

References:

Chielotam, A. N. (2015). Oguamalam masquerade performance beyond aesthetics. Humanities and Social Science Letters, 3(2), 63–71.

Lovejoy, P. E., Innes, C., Rutherford, A., & Bogar, B. (2012). Transformation of the Ékpè masquerade in the African diaspora. Carnival, Theory and Practice, 127–152.

Molinta, E. (2014). The nature of the African masquerade in performance. Sankofa: Journal of Humanities, 2(1): 13–45.

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Tiffany D. Pogue, PhD

Tiffany D. Pogueis an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education whose research interests include Black Educational History, Philosophy, & Literacy Tradition.