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The Movement Unmasked
by Lisa Grady-Willis
A black and white photograph of a crowd of protestors centered around a young, dark-skinned female wearing a mask, holding a sign and raising her right fist in the air.
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Isaac Scott (born Quincy, Illinois, 1990)
June 8th, 2020. Juniper St and Filbert St, 2020
archival pigment print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum

Lisa Grady-Willis
Program Associate Director and Visiting Professor of Intergroup Relations
Skidmore College

We Wear the Mask(1)
By Paul Laurence Dunbar

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!

Masks made by MASKS4PEOPLE and Nicole Cherubini in *Nicole Cherubini: Shaking the Trees*, Tang Teaching Museum, 2020
Masks made by MASKS4PEOPLE and Nicole Cherubini in Nicole Cherubini: Shaking the Trees, Tang Teaching Museum, 2020

Our masks are wearing thin …

In 1896, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar spoke of wearing the mask—the armor and protection necessary to shield our hearts from the rest of the world. He calls us to reckon with all that the mask represents and all that is hidden underneath. Today, the mask is no longer just a symbol or metaphor—it is also a physical reality donned by many who are unfamiliar with the purpose, power, and pain involved.

Both internal and external debates rage on regarding who, when, and why. Whom does it serve? When is it necessary? And just, why?

There are people deeply committed to the preservation of self, while some put other folks first, seeking to shield those around them from what intimate engagement might bring. Still others recognize preservation of self as a societal gateway beyond individual concerns. They see preservation of self as preservation of homeplace, family, and community. They see themselves as inextricably linked to those around them: individual survival is communal survival. Likewise, collective shifts require individual investment on a foundational level.

The need to breathe is ever-present while the fight to breathe persists—whether on the pavement or in the hospital room. Faces unadorned, we share spaces with those privileged to know what is behind the mask. “Torn and bleeding hearts” revealed—the fear, the frustration, and the pain that we share contributes to our interdependence. We take deep, measured breaths as we move about, behind shut doors, closed windows, and open computers. We are constantly strategizing about the next move and waiting for the next pronouncement. We hold our breath when a seal, a promise of security, is broken. We scramble to gather our thoughts and our things (sanitizer, mask, bullhorn, backpack …). Comfort falls by the wayside—even in our most sacred spaces.

Though die-ins, reenactments, and marches may offer some clarity, symbolic moments of solidarity cannot convey the solitary reality of face pressed to pavement … dignity undone.

I walked into the grocery store on Thursday, May 28, 2020, and was overcome by the reality of the day. Tears flowed slowly over my mask as I moved from aisle to aisle and heard folks exchanging pleasantries. I had stayed up through the night watching as things unfolded and buildings burned. No. I’m not okay. Are you?

Cite this page

Grady-Willis, Lisa. “The Movement Unmasked by Lisa Grady-Willis.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. Last modified January 27, 2021.
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