Updated: September 9, 2013 2:54PM
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 …
Paul Laurence Dunbar,
“We Wear the Mask,” 1895
It first starts happening when we are boys, around the time we stop looking cuddly. The end of the Gary Coleman phase, when the hormones kick in and we start looking like little men.
My mom insisted that I carry ID, told me never — ever — to run from the cops. And I was never to smart off. There were other warnings: “Never move your hands suddenly. Do whatever the cops tell you to do. Call me when you get to the station.” It’s Survival 101.
You survive only to find that survival is a daily task.
You’re careful about your clothes. A suit buys you some respect, sometimes. You know that if you are big and black, you are scary. If you are big, black and bald, you are scarier. If you are big, black, bald and bold, you are scariest. So you tone down the machismo, turn up a little treble in your voice, master the King’s English, and try not to look so serious, so mean.
Have you ever been stopped by a cop? Does the cop ever ask you what you do for a living? No? It happens to black men all the time.
They say you ran a red light. You know you didn’t. They know it, too. You know the routine. They take your license, run a check for warrants and send you on your way. Like they’ve given you a break. You curse them as you pull away.
As a young reporter, I once asked a white Chicago police sergeant where police get the confiscated items they sell at auction. Man to man, he replied without blinking, “We sell the stuff you people steal.”
You find yourself constantly questioning yourself: Is it you? Is it them? Is it you and them? Is the seat on the subway next to you empty because you are a big guy or because you are a black guy? You can’t get inside their heads. And they can’t get inside yours. Sometimes you’re wrong.
You don’t wake up in the morning with 250 years of slavery or oppression on your mind, and you don’t want to think that every time something bad happens it’s related to race.
Except the daily experience of living as a black man reminds you that so much of it is.
We have come a long way. The days are gone when black men could only get jobs as porters. But we still spend our lives carrying baggage.
Once, a white newspaper editor patted me on the head with a newspaper in the newsroom. I think he was being playful. I stiffened and stared him down. You don’t pat men. You pat dogs and children.
Did I overreact? Maybe. I’m not sure. But I could not banish from my mind the image of Al the shoeshine man, a frail black man who, in 1990, was still dropping to his knees in the middle of that newsroom shining white editors’ and reporters’ shoes.
I remember shaking my head at the sight of it all and smiling.
I wear the mask.