In 1895, Paul Laurence Dunbar captured an aspect of Black life in the United States that has for more than a century been a constant (if unacknowledged point of reference) reframe in strategies or techniques handed down to generations of Blacks on how to navigate white domestic terrorism. In “We Wear the Mask”, Dunbar wrote:
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!
Almost 125 years since Dunbar penned these sentiments, this project in democracy is imploding during an administration that does not disguise its deep admiration of White supremacist religion and fascism. Coverage of police brutality in cities across the United States of America reveal the subjectivity of responses to race and violence. From the occupation of this territory, violence was and remains etched into its DNA. Since its inception, the concept of freedom as articulated in this nation’s founding documents, was always intended to function as a metaphor, never an ideal to be realized.
From the conception of an ideology of white superiority, there have been movements of resistance across generations to confront this evil. Since November 2016, an intentional systematic dismantling of social safety nets and calls to revert to a time when Blacks were not deemed to be human was but a foreshadow of things to come. In the midst of a pandemic and unprecedented unemployment, residual effects of occupation are broadcast live on social media platforms and television.
From overseers to police, the plantation system of control continues to function to minimize loss of profit to those who benefit financially from the commodification of humans. With almost guaranteed immunity for criminal behavior, many persons who take an oath to protect and serve also swear allegiance to sustain white supremacy. Wearing the mask of a police shield, Blacks are killed with impunity because for some reason our lives don’t seem to matter. Yet, from persons who document police brutality, to activists on the frontline, to artists working with diverse media, to writers in a plethora of professions perhaps more persons will begin to question the extent to which some will go to justify (and excuse) the hunting of Blacks.
Perhaps Dunbar’s poem invites us in this moment, as cities burn and Black people are dying literally and metaphorically at disproportional rates, to consider how respectability to systems whose rules of engagement are fluid and elusive was never designed to serve us well.
On this first day of June 2020, might “We Wear the Mask” challenge us to re-examine ways in which our faith ought to compel us to dismantle oppressive systems, to include religious ones, designed to thwart Black life.
I invite you to write or post your own reflection and include the hashtag #WeAreNotSafe.
Angela D. Sims, Ph.D.
President, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School