For some time, since coming to Yellow Springs, I’ve been thinking about Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was from nearby Dayton. There was a Dunbar high school in my hometown of Baltimore, as there are in many if not most major cities across the country. It happens that I was a substitute teacher at that particular Dunbar for a day or two in the mid-seventies, which is how I learned about its namesake, the poet/writer.
Dunbar’s short life (1872 – 1906) was artistically prolific and, in its final decade, challenged by health problems. He wrote poetry, short stories and fiction and persisted in his work regardless of the judgment of critics or the public. In recent times, his place as an important poet and celebrator of Black life in late 19th and early 20th century America has been acclaimed by great writers including Nikki Giovanni and Tyehimba Jess.*
Given the national concern over mask wearing with COVID-19 and the face coverings anti-racist protesters are donning to combat tear gas and pepper spray, Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” may take on additional significance, reminding us of what people of color endure still today to maintain their safety in the face pandemic of racism.
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!
Here are two other pieces: one from Nikki Giovanni and the second from Tyehimba Jess respectively.
I killed a spider
Not a murderous brown recluse
Nor even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small spider
Sort of papery spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn’t
And she scared me
And I smashed her
I don’t think
To kill something
Because I am
martha promise receives leadbelly, 1935
when your man comes home from prison,
when he comes back like the wound
and you are the stitch,
when he comes back with pennies in his pocket
and prayer fresh on his lips,
you got to wash him down first.
you got to have the wildweed and treebark boiled
and calmed, waiting for his skin like a shining baptism
back into what he was before gun barrels and bars
chewed their claim in his hide and spit him
stumbling backwards into screaming sunlight.
you got to scrub loose the jailtime fingersmears
from ashy skin, lather down the cuffmarks
from ankle and wrist, rinse solitary’s stench loose
from his hair, scrape curse and confession
from the welted and the smooth,
the hard and the soft,
the furrowed and the lax.
you got to hold tight that shadrach’s face
between your palms, take crease and lid
and lip and brow and rinse slow with river water,
and when he opens his eyes
you tell him calm and sure
how a woman birthed him
back whole again.
*Both Giovanni and Jess have Ohio connections!
About Lines of Thinking
Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.