Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, speaks at Morning Prayers, Feb. 1, 2019.
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 smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
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.
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 mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask.
— Paul Laurence Dunbar
In 1896, the same year that the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation with their “separate but equal” decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson, Paul Laurence Dunbar penned this poem. Dunbar’s words give voice to the daily indignities of life within the Veil. They capture and encapsulate the burdens of men and women living under the crushing weight of white supremacy. And Dunbar illumines the soul-murdering price of normalcy in an abnormal society.
To express the sort of rage that percolated within the hearts of African Americans at the turn of the century came with severe risk. To give voice to tortured souls dehumanized daily by American apartheid posed a genuine threat to life and livelihood. Destruction of property. Loss of employment. And even death by dismemberment were just a few of the risks associated with public tears and sighs in the face of constant slights. This is why, Dunbar writes, “We wear the masks,”
It’s appropriate that Dunbar’s haunting words remind this nation of its seemingly high tolerance for racial intolerance. I offer these words on this the first day of black history month to corroborate the reality of those who still smile over sighs every day. I would also offer these words because of the universality of its core theme and message. Neither must one live in the Jim Crow South nor even be African American to know what it feels like to wear the mask that grins and lies. Whether born of great privilege or extreme poverty, whether you possess a Ph.D. or no degree at all, who among us has not wrestled with insecurity, anxiety, and feelings of insufficiency?
What woman, at some point, has had to go along and get along, to be deemed a “team player” and “collegial” by her male colleagues? Those who have had to endure sexist microaggressions, and outright harassment, to climb the corporate ladder, or even keep food on the table. We wear the masks.
What man who is financially anxious and insecure at some point or another has hidden behind the mask of his maleness — the cover of his whiteness — the mask of his presumed public performance of power? We wear the mask to hide our cheeks and shade our eyes so that somebody might not know that we aren’t the herculean protector and provider that we are “supposed to be.” We wear the masks.
So many of us wear the masks today. For some of us, it's our occupations. For others of us, it is our clothes, the type of car we drive, the zip code where we live. All of these can become masks to disguise us from our vulnerabilities and distinguish us from others — masks veil our fears. Masks perform our will to dominance.
This is why I would like us to imagine a world. Imagine a world where rather than being cloaked in the costumes of superiority we learned to align with one another in our vulnerabilities. Imagine a world, where rather than wearing the masks of perfection, we learned to love ourselves enough to be honest with ourselves. For the more we conceal the person we learn to hate, the more we project that hatred into the world. Maybe this is why Paul Laurence Dunbar could not keep the hands of violence off of his wife. Perhaps this is why, in the words of James Baldwin, we all cling to our masks of hatred so tightly. For when we take off the masks, we will all be forced to deal with our pain.