We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smilePaul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar was only 24 years old when he published the poem “We Wear the Mask” in 1896. It was an honest portrayal of what he saw as the son of freed slaves from Kentucky. Dunbar pulled from the experiences his parents shared about plantation life, coupled with what he witnessed for himself to create poems that hold a mirror up to America. Dunbar self-published his first books while working as an elevator operator and sold them to people for a dollar. He embodied two traits I have tried to integrate into my life as a writer, an entrepreneurial fortitude and the courage to peel back the uncomfortable layers of life in America for the descendants of enslaved Africans.
In many ways, we are beautifully unmasked in 2020 as we reconnect with our heritage in all aspects of our lives. Just yesterday, I spent part of the afternoon making “Hoppin’ John”, a traditional dish from the South Carolina low country. In a time when the nation is taking issue with “Karens”, I stumbled upon a book by Karen Hess, The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection”, making a direct link between my dish and the African Diaspora. She writes, “That technique of cooking rice and beans together was African in origin, and it spread to every part of the Americas that had a significant African presence. Each location developed its own distinctive rice and bean dishes—the Moros y Cristianos of Cuba (made with black beans), the Pois et Riz Collé of Louisiana (made with red beans), and the Hoppin’ John of the South Carolina Lowcountry.” Food and agriculture were inherently linked to our collective survival. This is one of the reasons urban agriculture is experiencing a resurgence in urban communities and at schools like the one I lead in metro-Atlanta. Our food was central to our sense of community and tradition. So were masks.
Africans have always used masks for survival. In West African cultures, the mask was not exclusively decorative or ornamental. Masks were used in ceremonies, celebrations of life and death, declarations of war, and to conjure up the spirits of ancestors in times of peril. The masks Dunbar alludes to, the masks forced upon African-Americans in the 1890’s are less ceremonial, and more institutional. The metaphor of the mask is perfect yet troubling in its duplicity. While it protects us it can stifle us from breathing freely. It muffles our cries, hides our tears, and disguises our despair. To be considered free and not yet fully free is to wear the mask. To grapple with the fear of speaking out about blatant injustices for fear of the impact on our professional lives is to wear the mask. To see others targeted, murdered, imprisoned, and disenfranchised, and to be forced under threats of violence to remain silent is to wear the mask. Today is a new era in our history where we feel compelled to wear literal masks, but we’ve grown tired of wearing the masks that have permitted our subjugation and oppression.
Today is a new era in our history where we feel compelled to wear literal masks, but we’ve grown tired of wearing the masks that have permitted our subjugation and oppression.Andre Benito Mountain
While most of us are living through experiences in America that we have never experienced before, the events are in fact not unprecedented. The context of Dunbar’s poem was a time when America was experiencing an economic depression. Wealthy Americans were fearful the uprising and protests they were witnessing would come to their doorsteps. In 1894, Jacob Coxey from Dayton, Ohio formed an “Industry Army” to protest the government’s inaction. He and his “army” marched to Washington. Coxey was jailed after he attempted to deliver a speech on the steps of the Capitol.
Dunbar published “Lyrics of Lowly Life” in 1896. It was his first volume of published work. The context of the time paints a clear picture of why this poem, “We Wear the Mask” was included in the volume. There were one hundred and thirteen African-Americans lynched in 1895. Today we are beginning to see a resurgence in reports of lynchings of African-Americans around the country. There was conflict within the African-American community regarding the way forward. Booker T. Washington visited Atlanta in 1895 and delivered the Atlanta Compromise where he espoused accommodation to White rule and an assurance of basic education and judicial due process. Frederick Douglass had died on February 20th of the same year. W.E.B. DuBois disagreed with Booker T. Washington and felt African-Americans should engage in civil rights activism. This stance would eventually lead to the Civil Rights movement which emerged in the 1950’s. Today we see opposing sides regarding the issue of protests, Black Lives Matter, and ways to exert economic pressure on an oppressive criminal justice system.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.Paul Laurence Dunbar
Most people don’t realize that Harriet Tubman was not her real name. Born Araminta Ross, she would become one of the most powerful examples of courage in leadership in American history. Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross, conducted at least thirteen missions to rescue families and friends from slavery. She accomplished this with the use of disguises, strategy, and a keen understanding of the deplorable system of oppression she was working to unravel. I would challenge any educator to view your work like the work of Harriet Tubman: working within a system, wearing masks and employing strategies to lead people towards freedom.
Harriet Tubman was the first woman to lead an assault during the Civil War on plantations in South Carolina. In the Combahee River Raid of 1863, she helped 750 slaves to escape plantations and make their way toward Beaufort, South Carolina on Union steamboats. Her mask of invisibility as an African-American woman during the Civil War allowed her to survive as she provided critical information and support to the Union.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the milePaul Laurence Dunbar
He Too Wears a Mask
At its most critical hour, America is without mature leadership at the highest levels. Our president adds fuel to an increasingly tense political environment by using racist terms and failing to blatantly denounce police misconduct.
Instead, we find examples of great leadership in the mayors of our cities like Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, Ras Baraka of Newark and Mario Cuomo of New York. Mayor Baraka, shown above, distributes masks to Newark’s citizens, all the while wearing the mask and gloves recommended by healthcare professionals. The painful juxtaposition of the masked and the unmasked is glaring. As Trump stands at the podium alongside medical experts, some attack him for the fact that he is seemingly unmasked. But I’d suggest that he too IS in fact wearing a mask. He is the host of the most grand masquerade ball and his gilded mask only covers his eyes, preventing him from seeing what is taking place around him.
The masks of 1895 have been replaced with N95 masks. The masks we are asked to wear are tangible reminders of the masks my heroes were once forced to wear. Stifling, restrictive, invisible masks.
Soundtrack: I Owe You Nothing by Seinabo Sey