Editor’s note: This is the second of two John Fountain columns titled, “We Wear The Mask”
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes
— Paul Laurence Dunbar
As black men in America, we wear the mask.
American Racism. It is an inescapable virus. It lives in the air all around us with infectious, injurious droplets of hate.
We are not pandemic proof. We are susceptible to the virus that causes us to spit up blood after being punched and assaulted by rogue white police. Subject to shortness of breath from chokeholds of hate-filled assaulters cloaked in blue with silver badges. Merciless killers who do not relent even when we declare with last gasps, “I can’t breathe.”
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We are Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. We are slain in broad daylight. Executed by cops in cold blood. Brutalized. Dehumanized.
We wear the mask. For we know not where the virus lies, or beneath whose breath, or skin there is the potential to harm, assault, or kill us.
What is our protection, our balm? Why does American democracy for us still ring with American hypocrisy? If that white Minneapolis cop had held his knee to a dog’s neck until lifeless, would not America now be up in arms?
Why does this virus called racism persist, so cruelly, so mean?
There seems no vaccine. Only clear is that we are still America’s so-called freedmen, still in search of liberty 157 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
We are mostly without prescriptions. We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise
The mask is heavy, almost too hard to bear. It shades our anger, hides our tears. It sometimes makes us the Alone Rangers.
It provides a facade against the daily internal tumult that gnaws at souls still longing to be free. The virus pricks as we awaken to fill our lungs with the breath of a new morning. We cannot afford to forget that the black body — male or female — is always in danger. That we have been deemed American expendable.
I have learned avoidance from certain social settings. To enter at my own risk. I have learned to tiptoe, to sidestep, backpedal — the art of elusion.
And yet, even in all of our craftiness, the acquisition of upward social mobility, education and a slice of the American dream, we have yet to discover any complete inoculation.
The virus is sinister. Unrelenting. Unmerciful. Unholy. It follows us around inside stores. Shuns us on elevators. It recoils at the sight of us on the street. Stares at us with distrust and disdain.
The virus shackles our hands and feet by mass incarceration that masquerades as criminal justice, even as the coronavirus now also seeks to prey upon our black bodies and souls like old Jim Crow.
The virus ebbs and flows, sometimes like an imperceptible wind, infiltrating every fabric of American life. The virus sometimes knocks us to our knees. It intrudes. Riddles our black body with 16 shots.
It confiscates our lives as we recline in our own apartment eating ice cream. It hurls us to the ground and grinds a knee into our carotid arteries. The virus makes excuses for it’s own seasonal spike. Eats away at the soul of a nation.
It disproportionately affects those with the underlying condition of being male and also black. It assaults us when we are “driving while black,” “walking while black,” “eating while black,” “teaching while black,” “reporting while black,” “living while black,” “breathing while black,” “jogging while black,” even “bird watching while black.”
It does not relent even in the face of a new pandemic we have not seen before and that necessitates that we now wear a new mask.
Sometimes with tears in our eyes, we wear the mask.