The Centers for Disease Control has made “The Mask” an image of both the virus and the cure to COVID-19. In the same way that one might wear the mask because they want to keep themselves safe from the virus, one might wear the mask because they want to protect others. What’s been most interesting about the role of “The Mask” during this global pandemic, is that pre-pandemic, I only understood masks to be protectors of identity, not as a form of infirmary.
Outside of being used during medical procedures, I only knew masks were used for masquerades, Halloween costumes and ancient Roman theatrics. Masks were intended to hide the truth in an effort to create a lie. Paul Laurence Dunbar, in “We Wear The Mask,” expresses this truth perfectly. “The Mask” has been used as a non-consensual cloak to hide the truth in the Black identity and experience in these Divided States of America. Dunbar wrote that poem in the 19th century, yet it still rings true in this year following 2019.
Similar to Dunbar, Future and Kendrick Lamar in their hit-single “Mask Off (Remix),” talk about the truth and the lie in the masquerade that defines the Black experience in the 21st century. Kendrick speaks on the “unmasked” Black experience producing profit in the mainstream, often whitewashed, space when he says, “How y’all let a conscious [brotha] go commercial/While only makin‘ conscious albums?”
“The Mask” has always been about identity, and whether it’s Dunbar in the 19th century or Future in the 21st, it continues to be about identity. Too many Black lives have been lost to COVID-19 due to a lack of knowledge. Similarly, the poetry of artists like those mentioned previously have kept us pressing against the pandemic of racism in 2020 that has existed since the year preceding 1620. This means that if we say that #BlackLivesMatter, then we must keep “The Mask On” while also keeping “The Mask” off.
Where does this leave us, you ask? It leaves us with two truths. The first is the truth that James Baldwin articulated decades ago, “To be black and to be conscious is to be in a constant state of rage.” This social and physical contradiction of wearing while not wearing “The Mask” is enraging, especially when Black lives are lost disproportionately to both pandemics of our present due to our most pertinent preexisting health condition: simply being Black. The second truth is that regardless of whether or not we as Black folks wear “The Mask,” we are still more likely to suffer at the hands of these systems that keep their knees on our necks.
I choose to wear “The Mask” because I believe in “ubuntu” and understand how my actions impact others. However, I only wear “The Mask” when it’s necessary; I only wear “The Mask” when I am in danger of spreading or contracting the virus. This means that I spend just as much energy wearing “The Mask” as I do keeping myself away from people, places and things that would require me to wear “The Mask.”
As Black folks, we must strive to fight against the virus of racism in 2020 just as hard as we fight against the virus of COVID-19. Until then, we continue to dive deep into the double consciousness of our daily lives, balancing back and forth between social distancing and code switching, all in an effort to make it through another moment in US history, His Story of US, the story written from the white man’s perspective on these Divided States of America.
Murdock is the founder of Murdock LLC, a company that’s empowering communities to leverage their influence and fuel efforts for Black liberation. Visit his website at www.murdockllc.org.