“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” –Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
By now, you may have heard of Colin Kaepernick. He is the American football player who has protested against police brutality and injustice by kneeling on the football field while the American flag waved and the anthem played. Reactions to his posture have drawn commentary from supporters and detractors. Supporters have been impressed by Kaepernick’s willingness to use his peaceful protest to shine a spotlight on multiple police shootings of unarmed people of color with impunity. However, Kaepernick’s detractors have not been impressed and have argued that he is disrespectful to the military and the entire country by protesting during inappropriate times, at NFL football games. Surely, protests are considered inconvenient, inappropriate, and inconsiderate to entities, institutions, or persons being challenged. That’s expected.
While this issue played out, I taught high school students American literature. I haven’t spoken to them about Colin Kaepernick except through the actions of Arthur Miller and his McCarthyism protest. Yet, I’ve watched and listened to people on television, at church, and in restaurants. I’ve read articles and social media posts. Much of it was disheartening. The President of the United States called his own citizens “sons of bitches.” That hit me hard and has stuck with me. To imagine that in a few years that someone. anyone would call my students such despicable names . . . that’s difficult.
Recently, I read Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask.” It was published in 1895, a year before the Supreme Court upheld racial discrimination in Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal” public facilities). In this divisive climate, America wants to put on the masks of unity: the flag and the anthem. However, this nation was not built on unity. Enslaved citizens have worked and died. Civil rights leaders have marched and died. Soldiers have fought and died. NFL players have entertained the nation. However, when one of them, an American citizen, chose to put an issue on the table to be addressed, he was shut down by people waving the United States flag as a mask and silenced by the national anthem. That’s unfortunate.
Dunbar’s poem is over a century old. I can’t help but reread his poem with a desire to revise it just a little to address how I’ve felt about Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest. So, with much despair, here is my humble revision of Dunbar’s poignant work.
We've removed the mask that grinned and lied, It hid our cheeks and shaded our eyes-- We've paid our debt to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we've smiled, And mouth with myriad subtitles.
By now America should be wise, We've counted our tears, we've yelled and cried; Not afraid to let you see all the while We've removed the mask.
No more smiles, O Father, our cries To thee from tortured souls arise We've sung the anthem, but the clay is still vile Beneath Colin's knees, and still long the mile Let not the American flag cover your eyes Remove the mask!
Unfortunately, my revision isn’t much different than Dunbar’s original poem. And I am sad about that. America looks really ugly right now. However, waving the flag higher and singing the anthem louder won’t make us look better. Remove the mask. Have the difficult conversations. That’s all we ask.
Dunbar, Paul L. “We Wear the Mask.” National Humanities Center, Paul Laurence Dun. National Humanities Center, nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai2/identity/text3/dunbar.pdf.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1850