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. But 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—America’s original sin for which she has never fully repented. 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 at times 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 three white men while he jogged in a neighborhood in Georgia. It 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.
We wear the mask.
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 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 liquid—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
“…When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”
A Chicago native son, I was born in Bigger Thomas’ town with deep roots in the homeland of Kunta Kinte, where Mother Africa still beckons for my soul to return. 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, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald and Trayvon Martin. I am brother to Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson and Breonna Taylor. I am Ahmaud Arbery. I am George Floyd.
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.”
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.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In accounting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
As Black men in America, we wear the mask.
We are not pandemic proof. We are susceptible to the virus called American Racism 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.”
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 all of 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.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile,
Recently, a fellow Black man I encountered outside our local Starbucks in suburban Chicago mused unsolicited while trying to untangle his blue mask: The world is now finally getting a taste of how it means to be a Black man in America, of being looked at as a potential threat, of having to don a mask,” he said.
“Now they know how we feel.”
We laughed. Except the world will eventually get to lay theirs down.
We wear the masks. One that shrouds our faces, the other that cloaks our Black male souls.
I awake each morning, amid the swirl of news these days about coronavirus deaths and infections, heart broken by the toll, but determined to survive this virus too.
I know the routine.
I wear the mask.
John W. Fountain is a journalism professor at Roosevelt University and recently named a 2020-21 Fulbright Scholar to teach at the University of Ghana in Accra and conduct research. A former New York Times national correspondent, he was a reporter for the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. He is author of “True Vine: A Young Black Man’s Journey of Faith, Hope & Clarity.” (Email: Author@johnwfountain.com)