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We Wear The Mask by Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis

Our country is under siege – locked in an epic battle for the lives of her citizenry and the very soul of the nation. We are, at once, fighting two (2) distinct but equally deadly foes. The first, an international pandemic that, on its face, is color blind, but in effect is anything but. As with most things, the African American community is being disproportionately impacted by the virus. In South Carolina, despite an African American population of approximately 27%, nearly 50% of the deaths attributed to Covid-19 are among people of color. This inequitable pattern is repeated in state after state around the country.

Second, but no less deadly, a highly potent mental contagion ravages the nation. America’s original sin – slavery continues to bear the rotten fruit of systemic racism and the rancid vestiges thereof. The gnarled branches of the nation’s race tree stretch forth and perpetuate the ongoing cycle of violence visited upon black and brown people by vigilantes and worse, the police. We have unwittingly inherited a front row seat to the racial saga that continues to play out. Americans and their international neighbors watched with horror as George Floyd was murdered by those sworn to protect and serve, triggering an international uprising that has signaled a critical and unavoidable inflection point for race relations in the United States.

As I reflected on these twin tragedies – Covid 19 and systemic, structural racism, I was struck by the power of the metaphor woven by Paul Laurence Dunbar in his epic work “We Wear the Mask.”

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!

The “mask” is, a brilliant metaphor for the public “face” that African Americans put on in order to avoid making white people uncomfortable by showing their true feelings about the disparate treatment they endure at the hands of the majority. To do otherwise, would have subjected blacks to a cruel beating or, worse, lynching during Dunbar’s lifetime. He wrote during the late 1800s, an extremely turbulent period in our history. While slavery had ended, reconstruction proved exceedingly cruel to recent freedmen who struggled for social and economic parity. Lynching was a common form of terrorism. While the South is commonly known as the hotbed of racial hostility, it should be noted that the North was equally complicit in denying equal opportunities in employment, education, and housing for those of African descent.

Today, notwithstanding significant gains legally, socially, economically and educationally, African Americans still don their masks when they go out into the world each day to walk the tightrope between dignity and sanity in order to avoid the appearance of being perceived as “ungrateful” for the hard won opportunities paid for, in large part, by the blood, sweat, tears and sacrifices of our ancestors; or worse, being labeled an angry black man/woman or a threat to the established majority. We continue to “wear the mask that grins and lies…with torn and bleeding hearts we smile….”

The public murder of George Floyd caused many to rip off their masks and exclaim, “Black Lives Matter” and to join the NAACP’s clarion call – #WeAreDoneDying! Oceans of angry black and white protestors shirked their proverbial masks and lifted their voices to advance long suppressed desires for justice, equity and the basic recognition of black humanity. The moment has come for the mask to be ripped from the faces of the oppressed and for eyes, ears, hearts and minds to demand an end to systemic racism. The tree that bears the rotten fruit must be chopped down and, in its place, the seeds of hope planted. We will no longer wear the black mask that hides our pain and assuages the guilt of those who seek to oppress us.

Despite this newfound freedom of expression, as fate would have it, a literal mask is now a part of the protester’s uniform. Our mask, which were formerly poetic in nature, now bear the NK95 stamp or are woven of colorful and expressive cloth. The deadly Corona Virus has laid waste to poor communities of color, with significant underlying risk factors. Thus, as we shed our “Dunbar masks,” we must don a new mask. We must protect ourselves from the transmission of this virus and preserve the health and well-being of our communities from literal disease and death.

We are a resilient people and despite the twin tragedies of racism and disease, we will persevere. We will substitute our figurative masks for a literal one as we continue the fight for equality and justice. We will gather; we will march; we will protest; and we will pray without ceasing. However, we will do so with a healthy appreciation of the value of our own lives. While black lives have not mattered to the majority in this country, I labor under the belief that every black life is precious and worth preserving. Therefore, we must educate ourselves about this disease and take steps to protect those we love from contracting this deadly virus. Protesting for black lives is pointless if we endanger those very lives by failing to adhere to proper safety protocols, including, you guessed it – wearing a mask. Given the dual role, the mask now plays for people of color, I could not resist the opportunity to re-imagine Dunbar’s iconic work. Here is my revised version of “We Wear the Mask”:

We wear the mask that ignores the lies,

It hides our mouths and protects our lives,—

This debt we pay for being black;

Behind the masks, our hearts will smile,

And clamor for the freedoms long denied.

Why should the world be over-wise,

In covering our faces and preserving our lives?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee for equality and freedom we rise.

We sing, our song of freedom despite their denial

Marching in protest though long the mile;

Let the world know that we are wise,

We wear the mask!

African Americans have worn the mask for over 400 years in this country. Nevertheless, our voices must still rise and demand a new social contract. The right to life, the right to breathe, the right to be gainfully employed, the right to be educated, the right to jog, the right to simply “be” must be protected. The time has come. Justice will no longer be denied – especially to those who wear the mask.

Published by Carolina Panorama, June 19, 2020

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