We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes — Paul Laurence Dunbar
I was born in a pandemic, shaped in the waters of strife, separated from my mother’s life-yielding placenta, thrust into a world infected by hate.
I am black and male. Born in the USA. I wear the mask. I cannot leave home without it. This is a matter of survival.
I have learned to wear the mask. Not the one that fits over my nose and mouth snugly and held at my ears. The mask that pretends that I am not who I am. The mask that makes my male blackness less threatening, more palatable. That projects a veiled image of me.
The pandemic called coronavirus is not my first dance. It will not be my last. I am well- acquainted with the pandemic that is racism. With that unique strand of race-based hate in this land of the pilgrim’s pride, stricken since 1619 by the indelible curse called slavery. A resistant virus, it was bathed more than 400 years ago in the ancestral African blood of the Middle Passage and stamps 21st century racism’s DNA.
American Racism. It is an inescapable virus. It lives in the air all around me with infectious, injurious droplets of hate. And yet, I cannot relent in my desperation to not succumb.
I am by nature a mostly life-long practitioner of social distancing, wary of shopping, of going to certain restaurants or neighborhoods even in this my hometown — or to stores, beaches, public pools and other places where I am the only mask wearer.
I am a survivor.
I have lived through the pandemic called poverty. Through the deadly virus called black male homicide by black males. Through state-sanctioned murder by cop. Through the pandemic called racial hate — whose potentially fatal impact is evidenced by the recent deer-hunter-style slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, allegedly by two white men while he jogged in a neighborhood in Georgia. This only reiterates my need to remain vigilant.
Racism manifests in two forms. One is a slap. Overt. In your face. A racist insult or joke. Discrimination.
The second kind is as invisible as the wind. It gusts and billows. You cannot always anticipate it or discern its source. You incorporate it into your life.
It is anonymous, everyday racism. Institutional. Systemic.
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
I am Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” As he writes, “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquid — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
A Chicago native son, I was born here in Bigger Thomas’ town with roots that stretch to the land of Kunta Kinte.
I am W.E.B. Du Bois’ black two-headed creature: “...An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
I am innocent blood crying for justice from premature graves. I am Emmett Till.
I am Botham Jean and Philando Castile. I am Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald and Trayvon Martin. I am brother to Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson and Breonna Taylor.
I am Ahmaud Arbery.
And I am haunted by Malcolm X’s words that “America’s greatest crime against the black man was not slavery or lynching, but that he was taught to wear a mask of self-hate and self-doubt.”
And I am determined to live through this pandemic called coronavirus, holding fast to the mentality and mechanisms by which I have learned to survive, perhaps none more critical than having learned to don the mask.
I wear the mask.
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Email John Fountain at Author@johnwfountain.com