Tuesday, January 6, 2015

We Wear the Masks

We Wear the Mask
by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) 

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!

Born on June 27, 1872, Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first African-American poets to gain national recognition. His parents Joshua and Matilda Murphy Dunbar were freed slaves from Kentucky. His parents separated shortly after his birth, but Dunbar would draw on their stories of plantation life throughout his writing career.

By 1895, Dunbar’s poems began appearing in major national newspapers and magazines, such as The New York Times. With the help of friends, he published the second collection, Majors and Minors (1895). The poems written in standard English were called “majors," and those in dialect were termed “minors.” Although the “major” poems outnumber those written in dialect, it was the dialect poems that brought Dunbar the most attention. The noted novelist and critic William Dean Howells gave a favorable review to the poems in Harper’s Weekly.

The above poem appeared in Dunbar's first professionally published volume, Lyrics of Lowly Life, in 1896 by Dodd, Mead, and Company. It also appeared in the volume Majors and Minors from the previous year. 

To get by in America of the late 19th Century, blacks frequently concealed their pain, frustration, and anger from whites, as well as from one another. For blacks to reveal publicly their true feelings about whites' maltreatment of them would have been to risk dangerous retaliation. After all, prejudice was official policy in Dunbar's lifetime–governmentally and otherwise–and whites vastly outnumbered blacks. Sometimes, blacks even withheld their true feelings from one another, for defeat and desperation were difficult to articulate–and could impose deep anxiety upon loved ones. So it was that many blacks wore a mask that suggested happiness and contentment but concealed acute distress and pain. 

Since Dunbar avoids specifically mentioning blacks and their suffering, the poem could stand as a lament on behalf of all people forced to wear a "mask"–the girl who hides her pregnancy from her parents, the boy who defensively humors an abusive parent, the soldier under fire who writes home that all is well when all is not well. One may fairly argue that the poem is about every human being. Who, after all, has not worn a mask on occasion to conceal hurt, frustration, disappointment?  

As gay men, we often wear a mask, especially if we are in the closet.  We can't be our true selves, we conceal our love of other men, we conceal the pain from friends and family when they make homophobic comments, we face the anger and frustration in near silence because we fear for our jobs and out livelihood.  In many ways this is changing in some parts of the United States, but not in all parts.  Even in areas where out LGBT people are able to be more out and proud, there still exists homophobia and discrimination.

I remember on the movie The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's character wanted to be very vocal about the AIDS epidemic, but even those in the movement with him were afraid of being too vocal.  Even today, we have people within the LGBT community that preach constant civility, even when we are very angry and hurt.  I admit, I do think politeness is the way to go, but within the LGBT community, we should be open and honest, and we should have more opportunities to be who we are.  We all wear masks, but one day, and one day soon, I hope that there will no longer be a need for those masks.  We will have the protections we need and deserve to be fully equal citizens, no matter where we live in this country or in the world.


Michael Dodd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Dodd said...

[I deleted an earlier version of this comment because of a problematic typo.]

I believe one attracts more flies with honey than with vinegar -- which is only helpful if one is interested in attracting flies, of course.

Civility and reasonableness are always appropriate, empathy and compassion are always necessary. The trick -- and I have not found an easy way to do this bit -- is to give honesty and candor their due while always being polite. Which is probably why as an activist, I stink.

My approach for some time has been not to wear the mask -- but at the same time, not to demand that all the attention be on my face. Other people suffer, other people hide their pain. We're all in this together. If I can by simple and humane example show one person that it is possible to walk around without the mask -- be that person gay or straight or trans or atheist or evangelical -- then that will be my contribution to a better world.

Bodhisbuddy said...

Personally, I find masks useful, depending on what you define them as. I couldn't, and wouldn't want to have to, deal with humanity without the veneer of kindness, caring, empathy, civilization, fairness, etc. that protect me from people and protect people from me. I find that the more a person unreservedly shares their 'true' feelings, the less I want to have to deal with them. Maybe it's just me.

Jay M. said...

I think I am to the point that my mask is off. The family knows, my friends that matter know, and a gentleman who is the father of two of my former scouts sat on my couch tonight with a gay Christmas ornament practically brushing his cheek. He knows now!

But Michael Dodd says it well. I don't wear the mask, but I try not to call too much attention to what's now uncovered. Unless you come to my house! HAHAHAHA

I try to treat all with respect, and perhaps if they are masked, they can see it is possible to drop it, too.

Love the poem and post. Thank you.
Peace <3

Amanda said...

As you stated everyone has a mask...whether it's one thing or another. Some use it to hide others may use it as a form of armor. Either way we shouldn't judge and try to be more understanding if at all possible. Sometimes easier said than done but we're all on this big rock together so we need to make the best of it. :)