“We Wear the Mask,” by Mimi Marstaller

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, December 13, 2020

This week in my class we discussed the poem “We Wear the Mask”. I teach 11th and 12th grade English literature, and most of the students are immigrants and refugees from Central Africa, Central America, the Middle east, and Southeast Asia.

The poem “We Wear the Mask” was written in 1892 by the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. I’d like to share with you some of my students insights about this poem, so first I’ll read the poem.

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!

Each day we explored different lines of the poem that students drew out as being interesting or bringing ideas to their minds. At the end of class each day we wrote our thoughts, and have been working on editing those thoughts into an essay. I’ll share some of the thoughts that students wrote.

Leya, who is a 12th grader from Tanzania who has been in the US for three years, wrote this.

 Nobody knows your struggle until you tell them, or it comes to them, a common saying is “people throw the spear to the pig and they feel good but if you throw it to the humans it hurts them”. This means if somebody struggles you don’t feel it even when they tell you, you will think they lie. A quote from the poem says, “We sing but oh the clay is vile”. This means to me, we are telling people we struggle but they are not hearing us and even if you tell the world, it will not help you. If we look back at how black people have been tortured, nobody was able to give them the rights, but they were telling people we need the right which is like singing to someone and they don’t even listen to you.

Asho is from Somalia. She has been joining our class on video each day, because her mom’s health is fragile and she doesn’t want to bring exposure from school into the household. Participating in an in-person discussion from Zoom is hard, but Asho does great. She will break into the conversation flow saying “Miss, can I say something?” We in the class are always glad for her insights, and we often spend the rest of the class discussing her point. In this instance, she presented a totally new way to read the poem. She said,

This poem seems to be talking about the problem of celebrity with the media. I think wearing masks is not about the physical mask but another mask that has different meaning. In this poem it seems like the writer is talking about the two faces of the famous people. Famous people have two faces that they used. One is which they show the media, while the other is the one they show when they are far from the media.

Famous people can’t express their feelings in front of the media for many reasons. The most clear reason they don’t express their feelings is that they are scared the world will know them. In the poem it says, “Why should the world be over-wise, In counting all our tears and sighs?“  It seems this line is saying that the world shouldn’t care about us and neither shouldn’t care if we are happy and sad.

Another Somali student, Hamda, wrote about this same idea of whether the world cares for us. She started out by saying,

This poem is an example of how many of us view the world today, which is all people just being selfish, nobody cares about how other people are feeling. People are no longer interested in speaking about how they feel because they will be judged for expressing their feelings. 

When the author says, “Why should the world be over-wise in counting all our tears and sighs?” This sounds like he is saying that the world feels great about noticing that he is in pain and crying.

In a writing conference, I asked Hamda to say more about how she thinks people have changed in how they relate to others. Had she seen such changes over her own lifetime? In her parents’ generation? When she answered, I encouraged her to add that to her essay. Here is what she wrote:

People always change after they fight for unification, in my own experience I think that selfishness was beginning after my parents’ generation because they had developed as a nation and all they could think of was getting ahead of each other.

            These three students were not the only ones to identify the problems of competition and judgment in our society. Their comments reveal their understanding that while showing one’s true self sounds like a good thing, the mask provides protection from the judgment and violent misunderstanding of others. The mask protects us, but they acknowledged there is a cost to concealing the true light within us. The last student I’ll quote is a young woman named Aluet. She is from South Sudan.

Everyone wears a mask and we all know, if we do then why are we wearing the mask? We cannot live life peacefully if we keep wearing the mask, we are also teaching this generation to wear the mask.

The prayer these students’ words bring to me this morning is,

Guide me in my own use or disuse of the mask. And help me create, especially for the young people in my life, a space where the mask is slightly less necessary. Where we can work toward creating the kind of peace Aluet mentions, a peace based on our understanding of each other’s truths, not the phony peace that comes from masking our differences. Help me remember that that space is created mostly by listening. Listening without judgment. And let the light of our joy and our complexity and our pain and our passion shine from beneath the mask. Amen.