Sunday, April 15, 2007

Things That Mark You For Life

We all have them, don't we? We all have many individual events that make us the people we have eventually become. The memory of those things will sometimes make you smile. Some of those things will make you swell with pride. Some of those things really hurt.

In my junior year of high school, (I graduated in 1981) I took a class which was being offered for the first time, called famous black writers. I was sure I would enjoy it... until the first day of class.

I got to the classroom just before the late bell rang to discover that, for the first time in my school experience, I was a class that was populated by a majority of black students! I thought that was pretty cool, considering that the black population in my hometown was (and still is) probably less than ten percent. I say majority black, because there was one white kid in the class... his name was Matt DiFanzo (who dropped the class the same day).

I sat down in the front of the class (which was my first "mistake"), while the teacher took attendance, passed out our text and syllabus, etc...

Once the class got started, the teacher, A very young, earnest, first-year-out-of-college, white man named John Murphy, introduced himself and started talking about the class and what he hoped to accomplish with it. We got right into it on the first day, and asked for a volunteer to recite a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, called "We Wear The Mask". I volunteered to recite (second mistake), and proceeded to do just that. Apparently I did a good job of it (my third mistake). I was pleased with myself, Mr Murphy was pleased... but my classmates, well, not so much.

Being able to recite poetry with proper inflection and good meter isn't something I was supposed to be able to do.

Why not?

Because I'm black, that's why.

Who knew? No one had sent me the memo.

My recitation of that poem led me to no end of grief for the rest of my time in high school.

As I was told later, reciting poetry is "acting white".

It isn't that it was the first time I was accused of this, but it only got worse.

The fact that the author of the poem was black counted for nothing.

I told myself, then, the same thing I tell myself now: "Don't worry about that stupid crap, Bill", and I don't... but, twenty six years later, it still pisses me off.

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 oh 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

9 comments:

Queen of the Mayhem said...

My first 5 years of teaching, I taught in inner city schools. While it was often challenging, it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done! However, when one of my parents accused me of trying to force her son to "act white" (I was the language arts teacher) it hurt my heart!

Soon I learned to have a thicker skin and inform such people that exposure to all races could only benefit the children.

High school......YUCK! :)

CreoleInDC said...

I agree with the queen. High school....YUCK!

Lawyer Mama said...

I love that poem. It speaks to me, although perhaps not in the way intended. We all wear masks of a sort.

And, yes, I completely agree that the teenage years suck. It's all about conformity and heaven help you if you don't fit the expected mold.

soccer mom in denial said...

Like the Queen I taught in an inner city elementary school (interesting how that is synonymous with all-black). And it was the parents who gave us grief.

But has something happened recently to remind you of this or does this memory just simmer? How rotten people can be.

On a lighter note - my daughter could not stop dancing to tonight's tune. HEY!

Charming Driver said...

The shame of it is though that like most mentalities meant to exclude or denigrate is that it doesn't stop at high school. Those people don't suddenly grow up and pull their heads out of their asses when they graduate.

Mamma said...

Thank you for sharing that. It speaks to me as well. I used to call it wearing my red dress.

Here via the Queen. Glad to have found you.

Gunfighter said...

Q,

The PARENTS accused you of that?

Good grief.

Hiya Monnie!

How are you?

SMID,

To tell you the truth, this little item is one among many that has simmered since the event took place.

I'm glad your daughter likes the song... it is one of my favorites from my youth.

Charming,

No, they don't stop at high school... most of those idiots now have internet access.

Mamma,

Welcome! Pull up a chair.

super des said...

A very similar thing happened to another black friend of mine. He got a short story published, and his black friends chastised him for wanting to be a writer. They were like "wat choo even doing in college, yo?"
The story was about that same thing, but that didn't matter.
:(

Terri said...

I wear a little mask here and there ... my little "happy mask" when I'm not so happy ....

I have been hurting a lot... but I don't want to go around being blue ... so ...
on goes the "happy mask."