2020 countdown, day 21: Safety mask

On Day 21 of the 2020 countdown, a poem about masks in a drugstore where a different kind of mask is sold.


poem is on third shelf from top


We Wear the Mask

by Paul Laurence Dunbar


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!



This poem has absolutely nothing to do with N95’s, surgical masks or gators, but it might useful to consider the manufactured “burden” of wearing a pandemic mask in relation to the very real burden of being obliged, for safety reasons, to wear a mask that grins and lies.


Paul Laurence Dunbar published “We Wear the Mask” in 1896. I don’t know if he wrote it before or after the 1896 Supreme Court ruling Plessy vs. Ferguson, which upheld Jim Crow laws in Louisiana and established the “separate but equal” doctrine. It doesn’t matter. That ruling marked in concrete the rage-inducing injustice Dunbar would have lived with every day—


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


We’d like to think that the mask that grins and lies is not as necessary as it once, but consider how Black parents must train their boys to behave at traffic stops. If any good came out of the horrific murder of George Floyd, it’s that the pretense of “justice for all” was exposed as yet another mask, one worn to cover the eyes. It was hard to believe in justice for all when beatings of Black citizens and their allies popped up on our Twitter feeds, one after the other, hundreds of them; when a Black woman was gunned down in her own home without consequence, when a Black man out for a jog was hunted down with delayed consequence; when the racial disparity of death row inmates grows even as executions grow more scarce, when 75% of death penalty cases involve white victims, because seemingly their lives are worth more than the black victims whose perpetrators are rarely put on death row.




Here’s a bio of Dunbar from a previous post:


Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was born in Dayton, Ohio, the child of former slaves. His mother taught him to read when he was four and always encouraged his education. His parents separated when he was a toddler, and his father, who had escaped enslavement before the end of the Civil War and fled to Massachusetts to fight for the Union, died when Dunbar was twelve.


Dunbar was the only black student in an all-white high school. It’s amazing to me that in late 19thcentury America such a student could be class president, editor of the class paper and class poet, but he was. He wanted to go to college but had to work to support the family. Prevented from finding a job in the legal or newspaper world because of bigotry, he took a job as an elevator operator. During this time he self-published his first collection of poems and sold copies for a dollar to people riding on his elevator.


Orville Wright was a high school classmate and friend. He and his brother owned a publishing plant and published a black newspaper featuring Dunbar’s poems. Dunbar was also friends with Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington.


When he was 26 he married schoolteacher and poet Alice Moore. The marriage was unhappy and they would separate after four years. As newlyweds they moved to Washington, D.C. where Dunbar worked for the Library of Congress. When he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, they moved to Colorado for his health. To soothe his coughing fits doctors encouraged him to drink whiskey, which contributed to his alcoholism which in turn hastened his death at the early age of 33.


In addition to eleven volumes of poetry, Dunbar wrote novels, essays, short stories, plays and lyrics, notably for the musical comedy “Dahomey,” the first all-black Broadway production. He collaborated with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Anglo-African composer of “Deep River” fame. You can hear one of their pieces here.


Dunbar has a genius for constructing memorable phrases. His poem “We Wear the Mask” gives me shivers. Listen here to a punk version


Another phrase of his co-opted in popular culture is the “Who Dat” cheer for the New Orleans Saints, originally from his lyrics to the song “Who Dat Chicken in Dis Crowd?” If you want to hear something from the NFL that’s not divisive, Aaron Neville’s mix of the Who Dat cheer with “Saints Go Marching In” accompanied by Saints players is positively infectious.


Finally, link here for a lovely Christmas Carol using his poem “Ring Out Ye Bells.”




That’s all till Monday. I’ll be back with a new poem for day 18.





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