An African tradition, street masquerading on holidays has been a popular cultural tradition in St. Thomas and St. Croix since the eighteenth century. Initially confined to adults, children have been practitioners since the early twentieth century as demonstrated by this photograph. The early holiday masquerades influenced what would later develop, the annual Carnival and Festival celebrations. The masks, costumes, and outfits that people in the Virgin Islands wear when they participate in Carnival and Festival parades have however changed since the early masquerades, and have changed over the years in general. Today, the term masquerader in the Virgin Islands is often used to refer to people that dress in old time costumes, including those made with burlap bag sacks and wire mesh masks. These outfits usually conceal the identity of the person, which is the definition of masquerade, to disguise yourself or pretend to be something else. Most of the Carnival and Festival parade costumes worn today do not include masks, and the participant’s identity is not concealed.
In this activity, students will look at the definition of primary source, consider how a photograph can be a primary source, and use questions to example a photograph of young masqueraders on St. Croix in the 1920s. They will research the evolution of traditions related to street masquerading in the Danish West Indies and US Virgin Islands.
Primary Sources in this Activity
Suggested Teaching Instructions
The teacher can share the definition of primary source as needed.
A Primary Source is a “first-hand, original account, record, or evidence about a person, place, object, or an event. Oral histories, objects, photographs, and documents such as newspapers, ledgers, census records, diaries, journals, and inventories are primary sources.” -Smithsonian National Museum of American History
The teacher can lead a discussion with the questions: How is a photograph a primary source? What can students learn about the past from a photograph? Is a historic photograph valuable? Explain.
Load the photograph of the young masqueraders onto an interactive smart board and have students make observations together. If there is not a smart board, students can work in small groups at computers.
Analyze the Primary Source
Using the questions from the Analyze a Photograph worksheet, lead students through a photograph analysis and discussion. You may load the Analyze a Photograph worksheet on the smart board or on computers so that you can lead students through answering the questions, print the worksheet and distribute to your students, or adapt the questions from the worksheet to create your own. Primary Source Analysis Worksheets
The teacher can ask follow-up questions to engage students in discussion.
What is your first impression of the photograph? What kind of clothing is being worn? Do parade participants today dress this way? Explain. Have students describe the masks the masqueraders are wearing. You may zoom into the image to help students examine the masks. What material are the masks made of? Can students name any Carnival or Festival parade entries today that still wear wire mesh masks? Have any students in the class participated in a Carnival or Festival parade? Did they wear a mask?
Art Activity: Have students make a drawing of someone in costume participating in a Carnival or Festival parade. The teacher can encourage students to draw someone they know, a family or friend that was in a parade. Since Carnival and Festival were canceled due to Covid in 2020 and 2021, younger students may not remember attending a parade or seeing someone in a parade costume. Students can ask their family members to share a photo with them, or the teacher can source photos online of costumed revelers from Carnival and Festival parades in the US Virgin Islands to share with students.
In Class Presentation: On St. Croix, Mrs. Asta Williams of Frederiksted is a leading masquerader in Festival parades. She travels to schools and speaks to children about the craft, and teachers might consider inviting her to their classroom for a presentation if possible, or for a virtual presentation.