Pity the Fool

The Black Lives Matter protests have been making me do a fair amount of personal soul-searching regarding my own education and interaction with Blacks. I had an excellent education for many reasons, not the least of which is that I was taught that racism was a deep evil from my parents, my school, and (insomuch as it came up) my church. I didn’t hear the “states rights” rhetoric until college (and that from a friend, not a professor), and I didn’t realize how vastly my own education differed from others’ until I started spending a fair amount of time in Nashville, touring Civil War battlefields. (You can read some of my personal wrestling here, with the acknowledgement that I’m not sure I would have made the same choice today.)

One of the distinct advantages of my own education was that I read a fair number of Black authors throughout my schooling. In fact, in college I took two separate courses in African American literature (I’m pretty sure those were the only two classes I have ever taken where I was the minority race). I don’t say that to boast over my “wokeness.” Truth be told, I wasn’t a great student. But it did introduce me to some authors and poets I wouldn’t otherwise know. I’m fairly sure Paul Lawrence Dunbar was among them.

Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” particularly struck me for its sheer relatability:

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!

I think my exact take on it has always been something to the effect of “Oh hey, it’s me! I wear masks!” I probably mentally (or even in writing) listed out all the masks I wore at the time: good student, good daughter, etc. I mean, don’t we all hide our truest selves from the world? Isn’t that just natural?

Fast forward to literally this past week. I’ve been doing a fairly slow crawl through Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which has nothing to do with the book of the Bible and everything to do with a couple of Black friends dealing with the reality of their lives and the murders of black men, women, and little girls in the 60s. At one point two of the characters call a third character an “Aunt Jemima”; normally a strong-willed, independent woman, she slipped on a mask of a bumbling, ineffective, always smiling grandmotherly type when she needed to interact with white cops.

This scene did two things for me. First, it was the first time I had used Aunt Jemima as an actual pejorative akin to calling someone an “Uncle Tom.” Otherwise I knew the term only as a brand of syrup built on stereotypes—never as an active insult. Second, and more importantly, it was like the scales fell from my eyes about the Dunbar poem. Like, all of a sudden I understood what Professor Tucker probably tried to hammer in my head 17 years ago: that “We Wear the Mask” is about the Black experience. It’s about black men and women literally code-switching into a “happy negro” role whenever a white person walked past. This would have been especially true around 1900, which is approximately when it was written. I mean, this is blindingly obvious, looking at it now. None of my white privilege masks have ever come close to meriting lines like “O great Christ, our cries / to thee from tortured souls arise.” How can this poem be about anything other than the experiences of former slaves and their children living in terror under the rising influence of the KKK, and watching their few Reconstruction-era gains drift away like smoke under the beating wings of Jim Crow? The “happy slave” myth is apparently being taught as truth in schools—but how can the world see otherwise if, for sheer survival, Blacks only let Whites see them smile like docile Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas?

I tell you all this to say that, even as someone who was raised well, I still have blind spots. I still have unconscious biases. I still enjoy white privilege. I have training in critical theory for literature, and I still read this poem with the most white, teenage angsty interpretation possible.

Which finally brings us to today’s poem. I wrote it a few weeks ago, prior to that particular revelation. If I, raised well, still struggle to understand the Black experience, how can someone indoctrinated by racist systems help but be racist. We all have our blind spots and unconscious biases. We should absolutely call out racism as the sin that it is… but we should also remember to keep our hearts soft lest we ourselves fall into a similar trap of ignorance about something else.

Pity the Fool

Originally written June 4, 2020

Pity the fool who learned the rights of states
Were more important than the rights of men,
And learned that every side of a debate
Deserves an equal voice—yes, even when
It clearly gaslights and manipulates
And spews forth violence. Yes, pity them,
For could they suffer any other fate
When raised within a writhing viper’s den
Than spewing out the poison on their tongue,
And hissing, lashing out with sharpened fangs?
We’re all indoctrinated while we’re young.
Those suckled on a lie loudly harangue
Each passerby, to convince or debase.
A fool’s a fool—unless he’s changed by grace.

Photo by Lance Anderson on Unsplash

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