Happy Hump Day. I’m weary today…the code switching, and systems navigation is exhausting, and frankly I’ve grown tired of making others comfortable by diluting myself. My words, my hair, my language, my concerns, my intelligence. This picks at my soul and discounts my gifts. Conditional, sometime-y acceptance is a lie. I want to scream, “Dig me as I am, or keep it pushin’! Get right with who you are, and you likely wouldn’t be so damn scared of me!”
I, of course, need my job. I also aim to leverage resources to struggling youth and communities. Whether that’s mentors, money, or visibility, I measure my success on how many new faces I see at the table, and if we can all eat while we sit there. This requires a masquerade of sorts. Musical identities, small talk, and adaptability that rivals tofu. While mastering a variety of contexts is important, those in power do not often realize (or even friggin’ care), that the conditions placed upon the very “diverse voices” you solicit, come at a cost to our souls.
To the decision makers, the leaders of both the new and the old guard, I say:
It hurts when you don’t take me as I am. It is an act of violence to impose your dominance on others. You torment your fellow brothers, sisters, and children when you maintain your power by fueling oppressive systems, and fearing those who don’t fit in the boxes you’ve preserve out of complacency and ignorance.
Paul Laurence Dunbar lays it out so cold:
We Wear the Mask
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!
-Dunbar, Paul Laurence. The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Joanne M. Braxton, ed. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.
Now, you know he nailed it. I’m not angry, I just ain’t gonna smile all the damn time. Just like the mask from our Halloween costumes, it gets hot, sticky, and uncomfortable under that mask. You can’t see everything like you want, but you have to keep it on for folks to buy into the image you want to convey. Eventually though, you can’t take it anymore and you have to take it off.
I have more to offer than humor, soul food, or sex. There’s all kinds of intellectual ammunition going on here, people.
The older I get, the less I smile. This is my reasonable service to those who follow me. I speak rather than smile. I assert without apology. I let my hair down (literally), stare leaders in the eye as I educate and inform versus explain and translate. I bring light to substantive issues rather than interpret slang and dance moves. The only way to properly thank those before me is to keep the tension in the room going. Keep pushin’ back. Live outside the labels I didn’t create.
I’m finding the key to maintaining my gumption lies in my circle. I thank God for a personal and professional community of people who will take the risks with and on behalf of all of the souls that live behind the mask. After all, masks should be hanging on a wall, right?