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 On the Masks We Wear

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.

We Wear the Mask (1896)

Paul Laurence Dunbar 

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar


Amazingly talented novelist and poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 – 1906), eerily describes the sad plight of African Americans in the opening to his iconic turn-of-the-century poem.  The social astute poem prophetically describes the dual world of African Americans past, present and beyond. 

 Born to previously enslaved parents from Kentucky, Dunbar became one of the first influential Black poets in American literature.  Although he died at the young age of 33 from tuberculosis, Dunbar was able to capture and describe the parallel domains that Blacks were forced to maneuver. His famous poem addresses the veiled mindsets of Black folks that had been unknown to the white community. More deeply it discusses how some people wear the masks to hide their feelings while others wear them to avoid the problems and dangers of white society.  As a pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance, Dunbar is specifically addressing the African American experience requiring them to “wear the mask.”   

“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,

We Wear the Mask

For many African Americans, wearing a mask is part of their life experience though everyone wears a different mask. Great American novelist, Ralph Ellison (1914 – 1994) described his mask in a different way. In his landmark, society-changing novel, Invisible Man (1952), Ellison opens with one of the most affective descriptions in American literature, 

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” 

Invisible Man (1952)

Ralph Ellison

Black bodies disappear in the Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Black bodies disappear in the Ellison’s Invisible Man.

 Ellison’s protagonist in the story—who remains unnamed throughout—doesn’t attempt to wear a mask. It’s imposed on him. As he searches for his own identity, he desires to be seen and understood. Yet, he feels neither seen nor understood—not an uncommon feeling in marginalized communities. 

Nevertheless, he doesn’t protest his invisibility; he just objects society’s refusal to see him as an individual—and very real—person of “flesh and bone, fiber and liquids.  At times, he is frustrated by people seeing his surroundings but not seeing him. In fact, he observes that they see “everything and anything, except me.” Ellison admits though, 

 “It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen.”

 But he also notes that invisibility has a wider consequence.

 “You often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds.”

In this remarkable book, Ellison searches behind Dunbar’s emblematic mask to observe that society has made Black people doubt their own identity and even their very existence in the world.

 Other writers have taken a more direct approach to the “mask.” They describe the mask as a symbol of political and economic oppression.

franz fanon book.jpg

In the revolutionary book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), the psychiatrist and intellectual, Franz Fanon (1925 – 1961), applies historical interpretation and societal critique to examine how identity, particularly Blackness, is constructed—and destructed.  A part of the Negritude movement of the 1930s and 1940s, Fanon (a citizen of Martinique) sees the attack on and diminishing of Blackness as deriving from colonialism and the dehumanization of the Black race.

He concludes, 

“Whether he likes it or not, the black man has to wear the livery [uniform] the white man has fabricated for him.”

Franz Fanon

Black Skin, White Masks

negritude movement.jpg

The more “white” that Black people act through their “grins and lies,” the more “white” they will appear and therefore the more acceptable they will be within white society.  As others have also observed in the Negritude movement, white society dominates the bodies and minds of Black people, forcing them to act, appear and even think in a way that is prescribed for them. The book notes that Blacks have no free will in an oppressive society structured on white supremacy and racism. He bluntly resolves, 

“For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white.” 

~ Franz Fanon,

Black Skin, White Masks

 The “grins and lies” observed by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the “invisibility” felt by Ralph Ellison and the forced “uniform” described by Franz Fanon are all different forms of “the mask” worn by Black people since slavery and colonialism. The different experiences can be summed up in a simple statement from the biographical historical film, The Butler

“Cecil, we got two faces: ours and the ones we got to show the white folks. Now, to get up in the world, you have to make them feel non-threatened.”

 This is why we wear the mask. 

the butler.jpg

Now consider this…

 Lebanese-American romantic poet and philosopher, Khalil Gibran (1883 – 1931), saw class as a different mask when, he wrote, 

“Poverty is a veil that obscures the face of greatness. An appeal is a mask covering the face of tribulation.” 

Emigrating from Lebanon to Boston with his family and living in poverty as a young man, Khalil Gibran observed how society reacts to and labels impoverished people and communities. 

khalil gibran.jpg

Through his observations, Gibran reveals that the veil has dual purposes: 

  1. To allow society to conceal (or make invisible) impoverished people and communities and thereby diminish their contributions to society; and 

  2. To allow the poverty-stricken person to protect him- or herself from the antipathy of society. 

As the third bestselling poet of all time (behind Shakespeare and Laozi), Khalil Gibran used his poetry to lift himself out of poverty, lift his own veil and, through his philosophical teachings, challenge the veil of poverty for marginalized people and communities. 


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