27 March 2008

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!

This poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar speaks volumes to the current racial tenor here in the greater Durham area and, I would even submit, in this nation. Many people "wear the mask" as Dunbar so eloquently put it just before the start of the 20th Century. Against the prominent and pervasive nature of the white patriarchal paradigm of his day, Dunbar creates a masterful account of the black experience as disinherited "savages" in America. They had to "wear the mask" in order to pass as acceptable "citizens" in the normative context. As depressing as it seems, it is evident to me that we still live in a white patriarchal society which limits the mobility and prosperity of those who are outside of the normative constructs of the power structures in America, the marginalized.

Historically, we recognize that blacks would often pass for white in order to assimilate into the mainstream society which was white. This was really done most often by lighter skinned blacks, mulattoes, who did not suffer from excessive amounts of melanin. The irony in all of this, however, is that in today's society we often see whites attempting to "pass" for black. These individuals are attempting to do something that is not only bold but in many circles unacceptable. Is this really possible? Can this truthfully be the reality of some whites?

Toni Morrison in her book The Bluest Eye asserts that we are not good, just well behaved. Here, she seems to be talking of communities, in particular religious communities. Here, she draws in on something that I feel is pervasive both in the church and in the academy. As long as we are "behaving" in ways that are acceptable and normative, we can be content that what we are doing is moral, just, and upright. The proclivity to "normatize" experience, to make everything fit into the category of normative, is a festering sore in American culture. I once heard it stated that "there is no story alike. There is only particularity." This speaks volumes to a country that prides itself on the pursuit of the "American Dream" which, to me, seems to be a masked effort to promote ownership. Perhaps this is why we insist on Democratizing other countries.