When I was a student of American literature at Auburn in the 70s, a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar called “We Wear the Mask” made an impression on me. It was about the brave face we put on for the world, as opposed to the pain we might actually be suffering. Dunbar, an African-American who wrote during the late 19th Century, knew hardships I have never known. But nevertheless, the poem resonated with me.
Dunbar’s “mask” was, of course, figurative – not a literal mask at all. But during this time of pandemic – and the necessity of wearing actual masks – the poem has played in my head often.
Actually, I have become so comfortable wearing cloth masks that friends have sewn for me from lovely fabric that I am not ready to stop covering my mouth and nose when I go out in public.
Just as Dunbar wrote about how a metaphorical “mask” can make us feel less vulnerable to the risks that might await us, I am learning that material ones do, too.
During my son’s travels in Japan, he noticed that kaishain (businessmen) on their way to work and gakusei (school children) on their way to and from school wore masks year-round not only to protect themselves from environmental pollution but also to prevent the spread of disease.
The poet Dunbar implied that we might be psychologically more sound if we did not feel the need to “wear” the symbolic mask that hides true feelings, but I am beginning to think that wearing the material masks may just be a way to keep us a whole lot healthier, not only during the virus pandemic, but also during cold and flu season as well.
Marian Carcache welcomes
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