Friday, February 9, 2018

Paul Laurence Dunbar's 1896 Poem "We Wear The Mask", An Early 20th Century Quote About "Smiling, Acquiescent Black People" & A 2006 Quote About Black Men Smiling As A Survival Strategy

Edited by Azizi Powell

Latest revision February 10, 2018

This is the first post in a four part pancocojams series that explores the history, purposes, and content of the viral #BlackMenSmiling hashtag and related hashtags.

This pancocojams's series on #BlackMenSmiling and its related hashtags seeks to provide some context to the viral #BlackMenSmiling hashtag which trended #1 on Twitter on February 2, 2018 and according to Twitter ratings, remained strong several days after that.

This pancocojams series also provides some corrections to repeatedly cited statements about that hashtag, In addition, this pancocojams series documents selected [text only] tweets from those hashtags for historical and socio-cultural purposes.

This post presents three spoken word/musical interpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar's 1896 poem "We Wear The Mask". The Addendum to this post presents an early 20th century quote about "smiling, acquiescent black people, & a 2006 quote about Black men using smiles as a survival strategy.

Click for Part II of this series. Part II presents information about #BlackMenSmiling and #blackmensmile prior to February 2, 2018 when the #BlackMenSmiling hashtag went viral and trended to #1 on Twitter. The Addendum to that post also presents a few post-February 2, 2018 #blackmensmiles tweets.

Click for Part III of this series. Part III provides general information about #BlackMenSmiling, #blackmensmiles, #BlackMenSmilling, and #BlackWomenSmiling with a focus on the purposes of those hashtags.

Click for Part IV of this series. Part IV presents selected (text only) examples of tweets from #BlackMenSmiling, #BlackMenSmilling, and #BlackWomenSmiling.

The content of this post is presented for historical, socio-cultural, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Paul Laurence Dunbar for his literary legacy and thanks to all those who are featured in these videos. Thanks also to all those who published these videos on YouTube.

(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!

The above poem appeared in Dunbar's first professionally published volume, Lyrics of Lowly Life, in 1896 by Dodd, Mead, and Company. It also appeared in the volume Majors and Minors from the previous year.”...

Online source:

Example #1: We Wear the Mask

Cliomuseofhistory, Published on Apr 10, 2008

Black History Month

Example #2: We Wear the Mask(Final).mov

Akanke56, Published on Nov 30, 2010
English 543 Factual and Fictional Adaptation

College Students
Morgan State University
"We Wear the Mask" The Norton Anthology African Literature Second Edition

Example #3: We Wear The Mask.

J MILHOUSE, Published on Jan 18, 2012
We Wear The Mask photography exhibit coming February 2012.

Shot by: Justin JMILLZ Milhouse.
Starring: David Mays.
Narration by: Dexter Mays. ::
Here's a comment from this video's discussion thread:

marcdaddy33, 2013

great film, great poem by dunbar and great music (sounds like Coltrane)."

Quote #1
From Selected Articles on the Negro Problem
Books on Google Play
Selected Articles on the Negro Problem
H.W. Wilson Company, 1921 -

page 124
"I thought of those eight millions as of men, black as ink. ... A very large proportion of these colored people, indeed, is more than half white…. The black or mainly black people seem to be fairly content with their inferiority; one sees them all about the States as waiters, cab- drivers, railway porters, car attendants, laborers of various sorts, a pleasant-smiling, acquiescent folk.”...
Italics added to highlight this portion of this sentence.

Quote #2
From Black Men Quietly Combating Stereotypes
The Associated Press
Saturday, July 1, 2006
"NEW YORK -- Keith Borders tries hard not to scare people.

He's 6-foot-7, a garrulous lawyer who talks with his hands.

And he's black.

Many people find him threatening. He works hard to prove otherwise.

"I have a very keen sense of my size and how I communicate," says Borders of Mason, Ohio. "I end up putting my hands in my pockets or behind me. I stand with my feet closer together. With my feet spread out, it looks like I'm taking a stance. And I use a softer voice."

Every day, African-American men consciously work to offset stereotypes about them _ that they are dangerous, aggressive, angry. Some smile a lot, dress conservatively and speak with deference: "Yes, sir," or "No, ma'am." They are mindful of their bodies, careful not to dart into closing elevators or stand too close in grocery stores.

It's all about surviving, and trying to thrive, in a nation where biased views of black men stubbornly hang on decades after segregation and where statistics show a yawning gap between the lives of white men and black men. Black men's median wages are barely three-fourths those of whites; nearly 1 in 3 black men will spend time behind bars during his life; and, on average, black men die six years earlier than whites.

Sure, everyone has ways of coping with other people's perceptions: Who acts the same at work as they do with their kids, or their high school friends?

But for black men, there's more at stake. If they don't carefully calculate how to handle everyday situations _ in ways that usually go unnoticed _ they can end up out of a job, in jail or dead.

"It's a stressful process," Borders says."

Melissa Harris Lacewell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, says learning to adapt is at the heart of being an American black male.

"Black mothers and fathers socialize their sons to not make waves, to not come up against the authorities, to speak even more politely not only when there are whites present but particularly if there are whites who have power," she said.

"Most black men are able to shift from a sort of relaxed, authentically black pose into a respectable black man pose. Either they develop the dexterity to move back and forth or ultimately they flounder.


Black men, especially those who look physically imposing, often have a tough time.

"Someone who is tall and muscular will learn to come into a meeting and sit down quickly," she said. "They're trying to lower the big barrier of resistance, one that's fear-based and born of stereotypes."

Having darker brown skin can erect another barrier. Mark Ferguson has worked on Wall Street for 20 years. He has an easy smile and firm, confident handshake.

"I think I clean up pretty well _ I dress well, I speak well _ but all that goes out the window when I show up at a meeting full of white men," says Ferguson of New Jersey, who is 6-foot-4 and dark-skinned. "It's because they're afraid of me."

"Race always matters," said Ferguson, whose Day in the Life Foundation connects minority teenagers with professionals. "It's always in play."

Fletcher knows his light brown skin gives him an advantage _ except that he's "unsmiling."

"If you're a black man who doesn't smile a lot, they (whites) get really nervous," he said. "There are black people I run across all the time and they're always smiling particularly when they're around white people. A lot of white people find that very comforting."

All this takes a toll.

Many black men say the daily maneuvering leaves them enraged and exhausted. For decades, they continuously self-analyze and shift, subtly dampening their personalities. In the end, even the best strategies don't always work."...
Italics were added to highlight the comments about Black men using smiles as a survival strategy.

Pancocojams Editor's Note:
A number of contributors to the #Blackmensmiling hashtag that went viral on February 2, 2018 indicated that they usually don't smile when their pictures are taken or when they take their own photographs ("selfies"). I'm not sure how much of the reasoning for this can be attributed to a reaction to White perceptions of Black people-and Black men in particular-being scary and dangerous unless we smile.

My guess is that the custom of not smiling when taking pictures have more to do with the cultural perception that smiling id interpreted as being "weak" and "unmanly", descriptions that would be highly problematic in certain neighborhoods more than others.

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