Over the past few months, masks have assumed a prominent place in our lives. In some cases, they are “suggested”; in others they are “mandated.” And with COVID-19 ravaging the country, we have been given guidelines on how to combat the virus: wash your hands, practice social distancing, and wear a mask. Some people quibble about the need for wearing a mask, seeing a sinister purpose behind the requirement, linking it to oppression or an assault on their freedom. But health care professionals know better; they see the mask as a means of survival in the fight against a deadly pandemic disease. Yet some high profile individuals have consistently appeared in public without a mask, and the resulting criticism they have drawn has been greatly deserved. Being the kind of nation we are, wearing masks has caused us to diverge into two camps: the compliant ones and the defiant ones, and from the appearance of things, it seems ne’er the twain shall meet.
Ours isn’t the first historical period to highlight masks. In ancient Greece, full-face masks were extensively used on stage in the theatrical dramatizations to help define the character an actor was portraying. A mask with a smiling face depicted comedy, and a serious-faced mask was used for tragedy. Those masks also allowed an actor to play more than one role and to switch gender. All the actors were men, as was also the case in Shakespeare’s plays, so the mask allowed male actors to play female roles.
But mask-wearing came to be far more than part of a stage play; it became a necessity, a fact of life, a device widely used by a social group in our nation’s past. A generation after the end of slavery in the United States, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar looked at this country and the place of his own race in it and, in the way of poets, wrote “We Wear the Mask,” a double-edged piece, which is at once lyrical and sardonic. In the poem, the mask becomes a metaphor for the disguise that ostensibly free black Americans used to hide the hurt and to cover the pain they experienced living in a racially biased, oppressive society. These first generation children of ex-slaves weren’t keeping anything out with their masks; they were keeping a whole lot in. Dunbar wrote:
“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes;”
Dunbar looked behind the mask and saw the sad spectrum of his people–field hands, cooks, preachers, and poets–all disguising their true feelings in order to tolerate life in a world that diminished their humanity.
“Why should the world be over-wise
In counting all our tears and sighs?”
Note the poet’s strategic use of “over-wise” to describe the trick being played on those who looked at black people and saw them happily singing in the fields, in their menial jobs, and in their churches. We won’t let them see our tear-stained cheeks, they say. We won’t take away their illusions. We’ll beguile them. We’ll wear the mask.
In our present situation, we wear the mask for physical health, for protection from COVID-19, an invasive, invisible foe. But to Paul Laurence Dunbar, the mask was worn for mental and emotional health, for protection that kept the wearer from exploding into madness at the conditions perpetrated by a very visible foe.
If we’re observant, we’ll agree that there are many mask wearers in our land today. Think of the people who take pictures at the scene of an unjust and brutish act, place the pictures on Facebook but who do nothing during the occurrence to counteract the injustice. Then there are those people who sit in corporate offices where they see that hiring practices systematically exclude a group of individuals because of their ethnicity, but they say nothing; they simply smile and vote for the status quo. There is a mask there somewhere. Also, there are whistle-blowers who cause a few people to be brought to justice, but there are non-whistle-blowers at the same location who see the same or similar infractions but who say noting. They keep the mask in place. There’s safety in it. In our homes, in our churches–in fact, everywhere–we wear the mask.
Removing the mask isn’t easy. At times, conditions may not seem conducive to doing so, but the current atmosphere of activism may nudge us to feel empowered to begin to courageously peel away our masks. And here is wonderful news. In this endeavor, we have an encouraging word from Our Lord who came to bring freedom to all (Luke 4:18). This should assure us that we can confront the problems that keep us behind the mask. We can free our tear-stained cheeks, fear-filled eyes, and timid hearts.