A Good Home

When the Mask Slips

My husband is the strongest man I know.

In his work as a journalist, police commissioner, mental health adjudicator, community volunteer and diversity and inclusion consultant, he has seen and heard the most gut-wrenching cases you can imagine.

And yet, he seems to find a way to process it all, so he can come home to our family and community and be the emotionally, mentally and spiritually strong person we rely on.

As our family members have been rocked by the killing of Black people by police and now suspicious-sounding ‘suicides’ of Black men found hanging from trees in the US, he has stood strong, never giving in to the rage or despair that I occasionally express.

Having lived in both the US and Canada, and having studied Black history in both places, he brings to family discussions the context that the rest of us lack. Because of this  background and his work with mental health, policing and inclusive strategies, he knows things we don’t. When I want a level-headed perspective on such things, I turn to him.

In recent weeks, as a diversity and inclusion consultant, he has been bombarded by calls from company executives to help them address anti-Black racism in their organizations. He has heard the heartbreaking stories of Black employees who believed they were treated unfairly in some of these companies simply because of the colour of their skin. Throughout, he has listened calmly and remained strong.

Yesterday morning, I knew he was going to say something profound before he said a word. Something personal. As he drew close to me, he said, calmly: “I need you to check on me occasionally.”

I let him talk about how recent events have affected him. And in that moment, I glimpsed the pain he’s been carrying around for weeks.

Yes, even the strongest among us are affected by the killings, by the never-ending injustice, by the oppression of Black people.

Hours later, my American friend asked the rest of us in a chat group to pray for her. With 3 Black males in her family, she has been on high alert, alternating between being ultra-protective and praying. Her faith in God is strong.

But yesterday morning was rough. Her husband broke down in tears. He, too, was overcome by worry and fear. Fear for the lives of his sons, fear for his family.

To negotiate being Black in North America and Europe is to know how to manage our rage at the injustices facing our people. It’s a survival strategy: to survive, to make good lives for our families, we learn to hide our anger and despair. And so we smile. We reassure our children, sometimes daily. And we pretend that we are fine.

In Twigs in My Hair, I quoted the brilliant African-American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. Like me, Dunbar wrote about both the serene spaces of the natural world and the harsh realities of ‘the real world’.  His 1913 poem, The Mask We Wear has come to mind several times in recent weeks:

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!

 

We would prefer to share happy thoughts, not angry ones, to give in to hope, not despair.

And we do have moments of hope.  The demonstrators, many of them young people of all races, demanding that unjust systems be changed.   The leaders who have already taken meaningful action. The resilience of Black people, after centuries of injustice.

Occasionally, though, at the place where we are most ourselves — at home — the mask slips and we admit to the pain. Yet, even here, we cannot afford to dwell too long – we cannot afford to let it paralyze us. We must be strong.

This post is a love song to Black males – boys and men – and to everyone who sometimes feels pain, rage or hopelessness. In those moments, talk to someone you trust, please. Remove the mask, even for just a moment.

 

 

 

 

49 thoughts on “When the Mask Slips”

  1. One’s heart breaks for all the injustice in the world and man’s continuing and, it appears, willful inhumanity to man. Thank you, Cynthia, for reminding us of the toll it takes on whole communities trying to protect each other. This time has to be different.

  2. Your post continues to educate me on the injustice shown to Black people in North America. Your husband’s confession to you about needing to watch out for him and the poem on masks hammered this injustice home even stronger than anything else I had seen or heard on TV. Hopefully, “the times they are a changing”.

  3. Thank you. My heart is full of concern, worry, anger, fear, love. I am trying to let the love do its work. This post helps.

    1. I hear you, Franca. The road ahead is rocky, and many of us lack the courage of the young protesters. We want quick solutions; we want to move on to more comfortable things, but some of these things will take time.

  4. I can imagine that all those roles bring some hard burdens to bear, in addition to those that are already there from being a Black man in this world. I’m glad he was able to let you know about what he’s feeling and that he has you to help him.

  5. My heart goes out to Hamlin, to all black men and women, and to all those who feel the crushing weight of anger and despair from injustice. Sending you both love and strength.

  6. Thank you for trusting us with your heart, your joy, and your pain Cynthia. I’m glad you can help Hamlin and others allow their pain and true selves to be revealed, and hopefully healed. I’m sorry for your pain, personally and collectively. It sounds like Hamlin does important and meaningful work. The world needs a lot of healing, making amends, and inclusion. 🙏

  7. Thank you for sharing this insight with us.
    I hear the gravity in the words he spoke to you.
    Yes it is important to remove the mask even as you say for a minute. Thank you for the Dunbar poem.
    I had a difficult weekend trying to process this time we are living in. The new week opens and I have hope renewed.
    Thank you again for sharing this.
    So important at this time.

  8. I have often imagined what it would be like to be a Black mother or father who has young boys and thought of the fears they must have, endure and hide when their children are out in the world – nightmare. Something has to be done.
    I would love to hear (and I’m sure I’m not alone) some of the changes companies make based on Hamlin’s insights as a diversity and inclusion consultant. Intentional inclusion is very much lacking and so very urgent. I hope our government has someone as well versed in these areas as he is because we need the kind of change and healing that he can provide.

  9. Very well said, Cynthia, and such important words to ponder as we face each day of this seemingly endless crisis. It seems so long ago when I first stepped out in the streets of Berkeley in 1965 to protest racism. And even then the Civil War had taken place a hundred years earlier. And the first black slaves brought to America over 200 years before that. Thank you. –Curt

      1. One positive note, Cynthia, because it is hard to remember. We have made strides in terms of human rights since the 60s. Think of women, think of gay people, and think of people of color. While it may seem far too little and far too slow, we have moved ahead, three steps forward and two steps back. Even two of the conservatives on the US Supreme Court were willing to rule in favor of gay rights, yesterday. And that is progress. –Curt

  10. If we remove the mask for even a brief time we will be able to breathe. Maybe this time we can keep it off. I live in hope.

  11. Thank you for sharing the pain and grief in this heartbreaking post. I hope what you write will both enlighten readers and contribute to real change.

  12. I think that poem is very profound Cynthia. I also think that having followed your blog for some time now that you are a person with much inner strength. I am sure with this strength you are helping your husband and friends to find theirs too in these difficult times. I think through out the world we are hoping things will change.

  13. I’m lucky enough to have a black friend at work who often shares how he sees the world. It gives me a lot of perspective that I wouldn’t ordinarily have and I’m very thankful for it.
    It sounds like both you and your husband are blessed to have each other.

    1. Yes, we are, Allen. thank you. And you are indeed privileged to have a Black friend at work who can share these things with you. I’m blessed by having White and other friends, and I always think people who don’t have friends of another race must be so deprived.

  14. Today would be the 100th birthday of John Howard Griffin. He wrote “Black Like Me” about his 1959 experience of going to the South appearing as if he were black to try to understand the experience of African Americans from their perspective, and to connect with the Black community in a way that could not when appearing as his native European. Sixty-one years later, we are still trying to figure out to convey your experience. – Oscar

    1. There must be something screwy with human wiring. I asked God yesterday to please make a whole new set of people Black and ‘if it’s possible, let this cup pass from us’. Then I thought about how they too would suffer and realized the problem would not really be solved. I’m out of easy answers.

  15. Your post is a love song to Black women, too, Cynthia, because it’s you all who do the checking in and often bear the weight of men’s worries on your shoulders. Dunbar’s poem is so deeply moving, and your post … well, pretty much the same. Sending light and strength.

  16. I’ve been reading Dubar’s poetry as it’s been featured in my Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day subscription. It’s sobering to see how relevant his poetic expression of oppression is now, over a hundred years later.

  17. This is a beautiful and heartfelt post, Cynthia. I am so sorry for the injustices your people have always known in this country. I admire you and your husband for speaking out and standing up for what’s right. May God bless you richly!

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