Thursday, November 21, 2013

How Much Longer Must "We Wear The Masks"?

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1896 poem, “We Wear the Mask” translates to a guide of how to allow someone else to control your actions just to save them from being uncomfortable. Well, at least it does to me, particularly where we are in 2013. This poem represents the facade that one must put on just to “make nice” with someone, a culture, a society, and/or an environment.
As a child, I was always told that I should smile more. I was told that I looked as though I was angry at the world. I was told that if I smiled, I’d be surprised by whose day I made by smiling at them. In my teens, these were statements that meant little to nothing to me. I was not unhappy. I was not angry at the world. And I do not recall anyone saying to me that I made their day just by smiling at them. And no one who made these assumptions could tell me what weight I had by walking around looking like the Joker from the Batman movies would give me. So I never put thought into it trying to “soften my face”, whatever the hell that meant.
Now that I am older, I am being told the same thing but now I am being told this because adults are not sure how to approach me. Now, this is where I am lost. Being in my 30's, with 2 college degrees, and working in a setting of assertive, educationally confident, socially capable individuals, you do not know how to approach me. And then I ask myself, what is the worst thing I can say, “no?” So, often I am told, yet again, “you should soften your face.” Here is my challenge. Now unless I intend to walk around looking like the Cheshire cat, what exactly does “softening” my face mean and how does that work?
With this request, I feel as though I am being told to “be a good girl, so you can make nice with the other kids, go put on that mask so they’ll feel comfortable to play with you.” Just re-reading that makes me twinge my face. Why must I wear a mask just to make other adults feel comfortable with engaging me? I have grown comfortable in my skin to be okay with the fact that we may not get along, we may not always agree, and we may never find common interest, but that should not hinder your ability or willingness to engage me. Too often is it made to seem as though I am the “Typical Angry Black Woman” just because I do not find a smile as I casually walk through life.
I, for one, am tired of wearing the mask. I would like to finally be myself and not be seen as the unapproachable, disengaging, angry Black Woman, just because I refuse to make you comfortable.
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
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!

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