- 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, whileWe wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our criesTo thee from tortured souls arise. We sing, but oh the clay is vileBeneath our feet, and long the mile;But let the world dream otherwise,We wear the mask!—Paul Laurence Dunbar
For Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Daniel Simmons Jr. and Myra Thompson.
Charleston, South Carolina is on a peninsula at the eastern edge of North America, a border zone with the Atlantic Ocean. The massacre of nine people in a church occurred here, at one of the major entry points for the African Diaspora into the Americas. The Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, which provides a reminder of the commercial hub built on their backs and with their lives, sits less than one mile from the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States.
Charleston, by its mere existence and geographic history, is a zone of Black death.
In this essay, I write about the significance of events that occurred on June 17, 2015, initiated by the massacre of nine Americans who had been worshipping at a mid-week Christian service in Charleston, South Carolina, in relation to the process of forgiveness. This process operates in relation to and is enacted upon the state of everyday violence/everyday state violence that the North American racial landscape has maintained through imperialism, colonialism, and white supremacy. The essay is necessarily embedded in a Black feminist and antiracist standpoint of identity, positionality, and relationality in order to achieve an understanding of place, subjectivity, and temporality. I am particularly interested in critically engaging the role of forgiveness in Black historical memory and in spatial politics that inform Black lives. Finally, I provide current possibilities for moving towards redemption—liberation, racial justice, and healing. [End Page 22]
The essay is entitled “We Wear the Mask” after Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1896 poem of the same name. Dunbar communicates through metaphor, in the African diasporic storytelling tradition. Through the poem, he describes the condition of Black life that required a covering of one’s true self—identity, emotions, and abilities—in order to participate in a society that privileged whiteness and upheld white supremacy and anti-Black racism. As I grappled with how to compose this essay, this poem reappeared along with the centrality of forgiveness in the narrative around the Charleston massacre. As such, I use Dunbar’s metaphor to guide my discussion of forgiveness and redemption.
In the days that followed the Charleston massacre, intense national attention was paid to the movements and reactions from the nine families affected by the latest act of white supremacist violence. When the families were given the opportunity to address Roof directly at a bond hearing, a refrain of mercy through the suggestion of forgiveness was centralized in media coverage of their interaction. International coverage from CNN, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, ABC, and the Daily Telegraph consistently repeated the families’ words, with an emphasis on the words “I forgive you,” pronounced by Nadine Collier, the daughter of Ethel Lance. President Barack Obama even took to Twitter, retweeting the ABC news story “Dylann Roof Hears Victims’ Families Speak at 1st Court Appearance: ‘I Forgive You,’” with the statement, “In the midst of darkest tragedy, the decency and goodness of the American people shines through in these families” (Obama 2015).
But forgiveness is at risk of being used as a pacifier rather than for addressing the larger structural problems of white supremacy, racism, and (cis-hetero) patriarchy. The statements from family members must be understood within the broader tropes of power that have long disenfranchised the African diaspora. Given the structural and social ills that form the North American racial landscape, a choice...