Kara Walker: We wear the mask

‘We wear the mask that grins and lies,It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— This debt we pay for human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties. -“We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar

The Mask Our Mothers Carved: the White Response to Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” Attests to the Brilliance of our Ancestresses As I walked six blocks down Kent Avenue from the entrance of the Domino Sugar Refinery Plant to the end of the line of people waiting to get into the now-desolate building to see Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby: an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant,” I noticed the pungent odor of SPF 40. I looked around. My eyes confirmed what my nose had hypothesized: I was surrounded by white people. It was the second-to-last day of the exhibit, and I, already having read the articles on ignorant white attendees, had come prepared with my pen and knock-off moleskin to add to this body of work. I landed in the perfect spot for the task at hand: no black people for a good 20-square feet. A middle-aged couple to my rear casually discussed the $20,000 piece of furniture that they were having built. Their pre-pubescent daughter, having preferred to nap, complained about the wait. The mother questioned whether they should instead go antiquing for the sake of their Spanish foreign exchange student with purple hair. The father said the most exciting part would be to get to see the inside of the building. The couple in front of me looked like they had spotted each other from across the page of the American Apparel website, jumped out of their respective avatars, put on shirts, and walked hand-in-hand to Williamsburg. They canoodled and each peered into his or her reflection in the other’s oversized, tortoise-shell sunglasses. An hour and a half and dozens of ignorant-white-folk-anecdotes later, I dropped my release form into a cardboard box as I finally sauntered into the factory. The overwhelming smell of molasses slapped me to my senses. Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” alludes to 19th century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.” The speaker of the poem says, “We wear the mask that grins and lies/…/ With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,/ And mouth with myriad subtleties.” These subtleties are the truths we mouth while keeping the mask intact. I came to the exhibit knowing that white people would respond to “A Subtlety,” the main attraction of which is a 40-foot tall Sphinx with Africoid features, a front-tied headscarf, a big rear end, and an exposed vulva, as they have historically responded to black women’s Mammy and Jezebel masks, and I wanted to shame them, without acknowledging my complicity as a mask-carving initiate, for that completely expected response because I was jealous of the relationship they had with my mother after forcing her to the New World and mad that they didn’t appreciate our family’s sacrifices that supported that relationship. Silly, I now know, because they have never had a relationship with my mother; they have had a relationship with the mask my mother once wore. They see the mask; they do not see us, even when our “subtle” truths take the form of a 40-foot tall Sphinx and a dozen 5-foot children made of raw sugar. Our mothers exacted their agency by carefully crafting an intricate mask that allows white people to truly believe they understand us. White people only see the mask; they do not see the “myriad subtleties” we mouth. And as the speaker in Dunbar’s poem points out, this is how we have wanted it: “Why should the world by over-wise/ When counting all our tears and sighs?/ Nay, let them only see us, while / We wear the mask.” In efforts to preserve our self-respect and dignity in the most inhumane and debasing of historical circumstances, we have made ourselves complicit in white people’s inability to see beyond our masks. Because of our genius artisanship, white people look at a Sphinx with a big nose, big lips, a big behind, and a headscarf and see Mammy… Oh, wait—vulva, too? Ok, Jezebel. The mullet of black-woman character tropes. While continuing to construct the mask, we’ve waited for them to want to see underneath. From slave revolts to Civil Rights, we have periodically removed the mask to force them to look at us, but kept it in our back pockets in case things didn’t go as planned. If what we want is to be seen, we have to do away with the mask. As long as the mask exists on our faces or in a museum, the chances of them choosing to see beyond it are slim to none. It’s easier on the white Judeo-Christian collective conscience to regard us as though we are our mask than to acknowledge the truth of our pre-colonial and post-colonial history. White people will stand in the longest of lines for an opportunity to reinforce their belief that we are our masks, especially if The New York Times tells them they should. Though it hurts, it is not our job to instill in white people or their media a desire to see the black women and men who wore/wear the mask or the historical context their ancestors created that required us and our ancestors to hide the truth of our humanity in order to survive. Walker purposefully leaves visible the brown adhesive lines that hold together the large blocks of sugar of which the Sphinx is comprised. If she could build a 40-foot, 35-ton sphinx, she could have hidden the adhesive if she wanted to. Walker begs us to be aware of the mask as a destructible construct. Either we spend our energy maintaining the mask that wasn’t meant to last forever anyway or we begin constructing new evolutionary paradigms for interacting with white people and white institutions. Not constructive: shaming white people for responding the way we always knew that they would, in a way that denotes the invisibility of the truth that we’ve historically chosen to conceal from them to preserve our agency. Shame leads white people to espouse more “politically correct” rhetoric, which requires that we, in turn, adjust our mask. Walker, knowing her audience would be predominantly white, did not want to elicit from them a politically correct response to her homage to the artisanship of our mask; she wanted them to respond with their truth. And the truth (which they have no need to keep subtle) is that, in generations past, the first black person whom white parents had to teach their children to believe inferior was Mammy, which caused intense cognitive dissonance because, theretofore, Mammy was a kind nurse, cook, and playmate to them (the best masks were those that, even in retrospect, didn’t contradict the children’s newfound knowledge of Mammy’s inferiority). And the black woman whom white people had the hardest time believing inferior in adulthood was Jezebel because white men kept going back to her against the wishes of the Great White Goddess, seemingly without reason. Mammy was a mask. Jezebel was a mask. White people know the masks, not the women. I imagine that that sucks for them. White people have failed, not for lack of effort, to run black womanhood into the ground because to them we are the mask we wear and no more—the masks our foremothers wore as mammies, jezebels, and sapphires and those we wear as career women, scholars, porn stars, artists, welfare queens, drug addicts, teenage mothers, video vixens, politicians, single mothers, Avon representatives, religious fanatics, cooks, entertainers, entrepreneurs, sex workers, teachers, healers, retirees, gangsters, athletes, activists, witches, etc. We wear the mask to gain access to resources that are controlled by white supremacist institutions. The mask is a tool. We are more than our mask. We wear the mask to protect that part of ourselves that belongs to each other. We recognize the sacrifices our mothers had to make to construct the mask—taking wood from our small family storehouses during the coldest winters and straining their eyes in the black of night to get the carvings just right—so that white toddlers could call them by their first names, so that white men could rape them without shame or guilt, and so that white women could hate them in the name of the blue-eyed god some of us still worship. I was a little jealous of the relationship white people were allowed to have to my mothers’ art. That their hatred and stupidity made them my mothers’ muse. I may have never had a mammy; but I have had mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, friends, lovers, and the two-edged carving knife that is double consciousness. I got the women, the mask, and the artisanship. They got a free, temporary exhibit. White people’s comfortableness responding to “A Subtlety” with the lewd jokes, indifference, and boredom that reflect their ignorance of our sacred mask-making ritual (past, present, and future) attests to the artistry of our foremothers who spent centuries constructing the Mammy and Jezebel masks so that we could someday exist masklessly. White folks feel that they have the right, even now, to interact with the masks as they wish because our mothers crafted them to make white people feel as if they could do so. Their interaction with our mothers’ masks is a part of the exhibit, though I do not believe it to necessarily be a negative thing. Their ignorance is “the debt we pay for human guile,” for our brilliant creative genius that was manifested in our mask-making ritual. Our mothers have done such artful jobs at carving that, in spite of the visibility of black excellence the world o’er, a lot of white people still are convinced that black women are nothing more than ass, tits, pussy, lips, pussy lips, and sweet, sweet sugar. White people cannot recognize the artistry or the history that informed that artistry because they do not look to catch the subtly-mouthed truth expressed beyond the surface of the masks that we’ve invited them, for our own safety, to regard as Black female reality. Our mothers pretended to be sexless Mammy and oversexed Jezebel in response to enslavement by a society that considered the public expression of multi-faceted black womanhood to be a death wish. Our mothers were skilled carvers. Our mothers were skilled ventriloquists. Our mothers were so good that 19th century Mississippi writer Katherine Sherwood Bonner could write that her Gran’Mammy character cared more for white children than she did her own black children. Bonner didn’t know that when Gran’Mammy went home each evening, she hung up her mask, sat us on her lap, handed us our own carving knives, steadied the wood, placed her hand on ours, and taught us how to whittle. The last generation of mammies now receives a social security pension. The baby boomers. My literal mother’s generation. Black women born in the 40s and early 50s were the last to be collectively groomed for the domestic service of white people, although many chose not to adhere to that training. The legacy casts a shadow over us all. Both Mammy and Jezebel have been refined—the molasses that, in the sugar’s raw state, had colored them and all the nutritional benefits of raw, molasses-containing sugar have been stripped from her. They are white-washed historical tropes best memorialized in classic film and politically incorrect kitchenware. The visible, browning seams that hold together the large sugar blocks expose the delicate, destructible nature of the Mammy-Jezebel construct. Large, looming, expressionless, and unmovable, Mammy-Jezebel has been perched on a heap of white sugar. The factory in which she has been built is due to be demolished. I have no idea how they’d get her out, so I imagine she’s going along with it. Our survival cannot be perpetually predicated on our ability to mask ourselves and mouth our truth to make Black humanity palatable to white people. My arthritis is getting real bad. Meanwhile, the 5-foot statues of black boys, upright and frozen-in-time, contrast with the massive, passive Sphinx. Though active, as children tend to be, they are neither jukin’ nor jivin’ nor are they eating watermelon. Though they smile shyly, they do not “wear the mask that grins and lies.” These small statues, made of raw, unrefined dark sugar and carrying baskets and bananas, melt away, creating rivers of unusable sweetness on the factory floor. Are we so caught up in trying to make white people see our glaring history that we’re letting the pure potential of our children go to waste? As we look to the Sphinx to allow us entrance into a coherent understanding of our collective human/American/colonial past—a much necessary step in our evolution, with each step around her, the sound and feel of our raw sugar-coated rubber soles being pried from concrete reminds us of our obligation to instruct the yet-unmasked, pleasantly unrefined children who bear both the burden and the fruit of the Black experience (instead of neglecting their potential to hold up our mothers’ dusty masks to the faces of ignorant white folks). Maybe our kids will be the first generation to destroy the mask. Maybe their white counterparts will be the first to want to see. As I climbed the exit ramp, a milk chocolate-colored boy traipsed around the Sphinx’s backside with a white family of four. “Mom,” he turned to the white woman who pushed a stroller, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if it was real?”