International Fellows Lecture 

The Centre for International Programmes is organising the next International Fellows Lecture scheduled as follows: 

Event Date: 
Wednesday, July 21, 2021

2:00 PM - 4:30 PM


Assembly Hall, North Campus

Title of Lecture: We Wear the Mask: Understanding the (African) American Experience in the United States. 

Presenter: Prof. Vanessa D. Johnson, Department of Applied Psychology, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA



"We Wear the Masks: Understanding the (African)American Experience in the US."
Presentation by Professor Vanessa Dianna Johnson
Associate Professor, Northeastern University
Boston, Massachusetts, USA


In my more than ten visits to Ghana which span a period of fifteen years, I encountered several people by way of conversation or cultural activities, that seemed to have little understanding of what happened to those captured Africans who once leaving the continent’s shores, became slaves in America. They did not seem to know the suffering that the captives endured on their oceanic journeys to places unknown to them nor the brutality of living as slaves that followed.

Case in point, on a few occasions, I took students that I brought to Ghana to visit the James Fort and surrounding community of Jamestown. One of the activities as part of our visits there was a mock slave auction where the tour guide had three of his assistants kneel on the James Fort auction block as so many Africans long before them had been forced to endure. The tour guide would then have his assistants pose as slaves with their hands in front of themselves as if they were tied and began asking my students, and others on the tour, how much would they pay for each of the pretend slaves. At the same time the pretend slaves would laugh while smiling for the cameras of those witnessing the auction. Each time I witnessed the mock auction I became more uncomfortable, and in some cases even my students felt the same. After a third visit, with a different group of students, I could not be silent about my discomfort anymore. I approached the tour guide leader and explained to him that there was nothing funny about slavery and explained what the auction block meant to those sold once they left the shores of Africa. He said that he was just making the presentation fun.

It was through moments like this that I came to realize that thou there was a bloodline connection between Black Americans and Africans, there is a disconnect between what the Black American experience was in the minds of many Africans. And that there needed to be greater understanding that the Black American experience was the African experience in America. Africa is the main force of Black American culture and Black American creativity is due to its African lineage. The Africans that permanently left the shores of Ghana (and other parts of Africa) took with them Africanisms that changed world culture, especially by way of Black Americans.

The purpose of this presentation is to use the ambivalence of the mask to connect African culture to the Black American experience. Whereas the mask traditionally symbolizes celebration and rituals in African culture, it serves as camouflage for Black Americans, as depicted in the poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar entitled “We Wear the Masks.” In Dunbar’s poem the image of the mask is less ceremonial but metaphoric, serving to cover the pain and misery of the Black American experience. Dunbar’s poem suggests that masks present to the world contented Black faces whilst concealing the agony of their experiences with racism and oppression.

This presentation will also unmask the Africanisms that transcended through Black Americans by way of medicine, culture, language, and scholarship throughout the world, and serve as testament to the need to acquaint Africans to their diasporic realities.