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.
— Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1895
I thought of this poem immediately after watching Todd Phillips’ Joker. On the face of it, this poem, published in the 19th century, has nothing to do with the Oscar-winning film. But I think good art has a way of echoing wisdom from the past to the present. This poem is rich both for what it taught us back then and what it continues to teach us today.
“We Wear the Mask” was published by Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1895. It describes the tragicomic double life black Americans were forced to live in the 19th century, just 30 years after the Civil War. Dunbar captures the unbearable oppression black Americans endured when Jim Crow was the law of the land. Facing abject racism at the hands of white Americans who not only taunted and degraded them but also hired them to work menial, low-paying jobs, black Americans were forced to put on a good face and deny their true feelings of anger and sadness in fear of persecution and a fierce retribution that sometimes turned deadly.
Lynchings, spurred by the Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist groups, took place across the US on a regular basis between 1877 and 1950 and were often accompanied with picnics and other festivities. Onlookers would sometimes send post cards to friends and family that contained the burnt remains of their victims. I remember seeing a photograph of this when I was around 11 years old, when my parents took me to an exhibit in Jackson, Mississippi called Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.
And so, in order to protect themselves, African Americans “wore the mask” and pretended that everything was okay in the company of racists. They pretended they did not bleed when pricked and did not cry when mocked. They walked with bowed heads and offered up conciliatory gestures in return for an existence that was not guaranteed. This repression of the human spirit, this lie that society forced men and women to perpetuate against themselves was tolerated —until, finally, it wasn’t. The Civil Rights Movement, which was a kind of second Emancipation Proclamation, was as much a psychological revolution as it was a political one. It produced a change in African-Americans’ sense of self-regard and self-determination.
It is easy, of course, in 2020, to look back at this time and act as if we’d think it was sensible to adopt the tactics of the Dr. Kings and Rosa Parks of the movement, had we been in their place. But the truth is that their brand, which was founded upon the revolutionary philosophy of Christian agape love, was a modern miracle. King’s call to refrain from violence in the name of loving one’s enemy is something we do not really talk about in today’s society, preferring lip service to a day named in honor of MLK over the rigid study and consideration of his actual philosophy, which would give the holiday some weight. But we often cannot do this because such a philosophy asks far too much of us, and demands the fullness of our lives and our sacred honor. This, we cannot give.
Were we to encounter such brutality, what is more likely to occur is not only the degradation of our physical bodies, but the descent of our very beings into monstrosities, our transformation into the very beasts that others accuse us — by dint of skin color or any other such arbitrarily defined category — of being. This is the ultimate defeat of the human spirit not only because here the physical body is taken in by the seething mob, but because it signals the forfeit of one’s conscience.
This is not merely a racial phenomenon; the implication of Dunbar’s poem is universal. It is a fact of human nature that men of all stripes often become monsters when everyone insists that this is, in fact, what they are. The word “corrupt” comes from the Latin roots “cor-” meaning “altogether” and “rumpere” meaning “to break.” With no one calling us to our higher selves, we are likely to disintegrate into brutal and menacing beasts; we are likely to become the hideous lie which is the mask; we are likely to become the Joker.
It is discomforting to think of Dunbar’s poem in light of this film. After all, we look upon those throughout history who overcame oppression as saints and fancy ourselves to be just like them. We’d rather not examine what would happen if we were to crumble under the weight of having to wear such masks. This would force us to sympathize with the Joker, and this we cannot do for the same reasons we cannot allow ourselves to explore Kingian love.
We dare not hold a mirror up to ourselves and ask if it were possible that we too would crumble under the weight of mental illness and social isolation and parental abuse and societal condescension. (To admit to this would be to admit that we need love, and that is the lesson in all of this.) It is easier to imagine ourselves as though we were the Freedom Riders, capable of performing the heroic virtue and overcoming all these things; it is nearly impossible to imagine that we could become the villain that succumbs to them. But the truth is that both impulses war within us, and we are not capable of becoming heroes unless we first admit to this.
As a final note, I recently read in The New York Times a piece describing Joker as important for what it said about whiteness. I laughed at this but really wanted to cry since it seemed to me the author had missed the point entirely— and in an unintentionally deadly way, ascribing to whiteness what is present in all mortals, which is as dangerous as it is ignorant. It reveals, to me, that the author does not know what it means to be human. His complaint that the agency of a white person — corrupted though it may be — by definition obscures that of a black person reflects a failure to realize that we are all mirror images of each other, black and white, rich and poor, men and women, since we are, ultimately, humans, after all. Our failure to comprehend this deeper truth assists in securing our role as the architects of a society where masks will continue to be worn. When we mock the Joker, we ensure his survival.