Language has a mysterious power. One message can be spoken, and yet evoke vastly different responses. The message of the cross is foolishness to some, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:23). Isaiah’s message that “every valley will be raised up and every mountain and hill will be flattened” brings comfort to those in the valley and dread to those on the mountain (Isa 40:3). Sometimes we intentionally speak in a way that can evoke different responses. Sometimes, we try as hard as we can to say something that will prevent division, only to discover that what we thought was asinine has outraged somebody, or accidentally assuaged another with whom we totally disagree. The tongue is a tiny spark that sets ablaze a forest fire. We can become overwhelmed and incapacitated by language. We can manipulate language to help us navigate reality, learning to speak the truth without bringing too much harm to ourselves. We can ignore the power of language and distract ourselves with trivialities, trying to convince ourselves that we can become disconnected from the pain.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, (1872-1906) deemed by many to be the first influential black poet in America, wrote the poem We Wear the Mask, which feels universal at first. Everyone wears the mask. The Mask covers up who we really are. Through a mask we learn to speak in ways that are acceptable to others, covering up how we really feel.
But the poem works on another, more personal level, (as all the best poems do). Dunbar writes universally from the position of his particularity. He was a black man writing in Jim Crow America. Much of his success was due to his ability to write about black life in a way that appealed to white America, without explicitly condemning the systematic inequality that caused great pain for him and his people. Any hint at the truth of his pain was “mouth[ed] through myriad subtleties.” The truth was there under the surface, but too dangerous to explicitly state. The mask worn must resemble the face of the one’s to whom you can’t speak the truth plainly.
Dunbar’s conclusion is to “let them dream.” Let the 1938 German Christian sing his hymns louder on Sunday morning to drown out the cries for help as the Auschwitz-bound train passed by his protected steeple. Let the American Christian focus on his personal morality and silently support the God-ordained State to solve the greater evils around us, even if that government is actively perpetuating those evils. Let the American Christian take the moral high-road for defending manners and civility, even becoming martyrs for the gospel of politeness, to wash their hands of any culpability in the reality of our times. Let them dream that denouncing and labeling their conservative or liberal opponents is enough to make things right and release themselves from guilt in the playing out of history. Let them dream that if they just go out and shop and build up the economy then we can just rise above all this messy history and converge into a better society where we all just get along. Let them dream that no one needs to speak up for the disinherited. Let them dream that they alone belong to the one true church, with no hint of corruption from worldly powers.
One poem, which itself is a mask of myriad subtleties. One poem, which allows the dreamers of false dreams to slumber in their dreamland. One poem, which is at the same time just truthful enough to shake some of its readers awake to the innumerable tears, sighs, and weary miles trudged by real people in a way that is distinctly held down by those who live in dreamland. One poem, which will be used by some to elevate the importance of politeness over protest. One poem, which stands in protest to be released from the oppression of having to wear a mask at all.