West African Masking Traditions and Diaspora Masquerade Carnivals: History, Memory, and Transnationalism

My conceptual journey to the book began in the 1970s. My family in Nigeria was a dynamic preparatory source of storytelling, masquerade narratology, dances, and dramatic performances. In her routine moonlight stories, my grandmother often hammered home the importance of understanding all parts of a story before we ran away with it. I have found this lesson invaluable to my career as a historian.

It is also striking that my grandmother sponsored my initiation into the Okorosha masquerade society despite the objections of my fervent city-based Catholic parents. My uncle and aunt concurrently held the position of “Chief Love” in the village Nkwa Love dance troupe, a position that involved coordinating choreography and planning song sequences, voices, and styles. Every year, beginning from mid-November, the group rehearsed new songs and dances in our compound before their public presentations in the Christmas and New Year festivities. Next to my family house, the magic hands of Gibson Tanker, the bongo music maestro, and Okorosha King caressed the drums to the delight of a somnolent village convalescing from the pains of the Nigerian civil war.

Since the apple never falls far from the tree, these childhood experiences were instrumental to my successful NEH fellowship at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York. As I pored over the available literature on masquerade jamborees, I realized that there was more to the story. The kaleidoscope of masquerade artifacts that I encountered in the Atlantic world echoed my grandmother’s warning that I could not simply run away with the story as I read it or I risked ending up with a flawed, partial perspective of beautiful, changeable patterns.

In writing this book, I came to terms with how certain cultures embark on a global excursion and mutate in diverse settings. The African Diaspora’s masquerades are not exact replicas of the Bantoid prototype. They need not be. Instead, they are a continuation of the Bantuization process that began several millenniums ago in West Africa. While the diaspora masquerades inspired new participants in the New World, the art of masquerade engagee remained a dynamic device of narratology – and one of the most potent survival devices for the enslaved people – as the musical, dance, and dramatic assembles transformed.

This throws into focus the opposing schools of thought on the broad theme of African cultural dispersal in the Americas. The “African Culture Retention School,” led by Melville Herskovits, dignifies the frontiers of new traditions that the enslaved Africans fostered in the Americas. The “Tabula Rasa School,” advocated by Stanley Elkins, denies any cultural affinity between African Americans and Africa, claiming that the African slaves took new knowledge and traditions from their slave masters.

The Elkinses had a point in recognizing the havoc that cruelty wreaked on the enslaved people’s physical and mental well-being. The human mind, however, is like a handbag that everyone carries. The insistence on permanent erasure of slave memory betrays a profound lack of understanding that ellipsis of memory often goes with remembering. In other words, one may forget the past but also recall the event in varying degrees or depth. What matters most is which realities gave the individual or group a sense of identity, making the memory or what we remember relevant to life experiences.

The culture retention argument also betrays serious heuristic flaws. By ethnicizing slave cultural artifacts of the African Diaspora, its exponents ignore the dynamism and centrality of spatial reasoning and fall victim to the tendency to imagine things with limited information. Cultural diffusion and modeling, as the accounts of the Bantu migrations and the transatlantic slave trade conjure, could widen this narrow ethnic thinking. Like transatlantic slavery, Bantu population movements show that cultures in motion are like a rolling stream; they acquire new tastes and colors in relation to the ecosystem.

The journey of the West African masquerade genre across the Atlantic is both literal and metaphorical. The voyage explains the intricate ties between African and African American cultural artifacts, but also charts their new directions. Transmutations in the genre continued to use narrative to promote identity, propagate, defend or pursue a cause, and recover or reshape self-consciousness in a continually changing world.

In this study, memory is the story of remembering, a narrative approach to the unfolding of events. There is a story behind every masquerade display. Masquerading was one among many African reactions to the encounter with slavery and colonialism. More than entertainment, it is a performance of collective remembering, an instrument of social control, and an effective affirmative narrative technique.

In making this book available to a wide audience around the world, I owe immense gratitude to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for funding the publication under the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot (SHMP). It is crucial that this book is available open access and as an original paperback to influence the way we frame our research approach, teach, and learn about African and African Diaspora studies.


This guest post was written by Raphael Chijioke Njoku, professor of history at Idaho State University.