School Talk

Barbara Mullen: Why We owe It to Our Students to Take Off Our Masks

We Wear the Mask


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!


Barbara Mullen

This powerful poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar is from his book of prose, Lowly Life, released in 1913. It was during this time (near the end of the reconstruction era, in the height of Jim Crow, and just before World War 1 that Paul Laurence Dunbar situated these words in afro-american literature that would forever illustrate the tension between living a life that is performative; replete with masks and shows and stages and …(he didn’t know this then but Selfies)…or one that is transformative.

There is no greater calling than being an educator. No more transformative of work, and yet, for teachers of color, Dunbar tells the world that “we” wear the mask. We, the Negro. The black folk. The sisters and the brothers. The teachers of color. We walk in a world that can be and often is incredibly hostile toward us, especially in highly influential field such as education. Make no mistake, this field is highly influential.  This world is also often prefers that we shut up and dribble or dance, or sing, or earn, or smile; or fist bump the kids;  then have us bring the totality of our human experiences into our pedagogy. This black girl/boy magic came with a heavy price and still, we wear the masks. Dunbar says, “this debt we pay to human guile..or guise” and it is no surprise that even in the noble act of “disrupting” we are asked to smile less we make our peers uncomfortable.  

We wear the masks in the classroom, in the conference room, in professional learning communities and if we make it far enough into educational leadership, in the Superintendent’s cabinet meetings. We tweet the mask, we Facebook the mask, and email the masks, to the detriment of ourselves, the families we serve and our students. If there was another platform to communicate who we are with the world; we’d be putting the mask on that too. We put them on to perform and to become these people that we want the world to see.  We try to exude happiness and wholeness when we are sad and broken; we perform success and intellect when we have failed and are confused. We even perform being “woke” when we’d really rather stay sleep. We don these masks. Because masks keep us safe. Or so we think.

At the time this poem was written (and still to this day), there were another group of people who wore masks to hide who they truly were. They wore masks and tore through this country with viral hatred, terrorizing us. The movie birth of a nation, originally called the Clansman, which was released just 2 years after this poem,  was propaganda that not only showed white men riding through towns, in their masks, spreading havoc to protect the white american way , whatever that is, but it was a call to arms for them to all get their masks and protect their women and children and whatever else they thought belonged to them…through this method of tyrannical performance. They believed (and believe) those masks would keep them safe.

The myth of that “white american way” is so pervasive, encroaching, and heavy that we wear the masks to pretend it isn’t crushing us. It is. It’s crushing us and it still killing us. All of us. Take them off.  Proximity to whiteness, to respectability, to acceptability, to perceptions of success will not save us. If we are serious about equity and our role in paying back the educational debt owed to millions of underserved students in this country…we must take off our masks.

We wake up every morning to another news story about something crazy going on in our nation. Then we put on the mask, go into work, and “perform” until we are purple in the face. We pretend we are not devastated and confused. We balance the tension between the desired state and the current reality of our lives. We wear the masks to keep that tension from the world until we “figure it out”.

We will never figure it out. Life doesn’t work that way. We will always have the tension but we can never work through it if we are hiding. When we wear a mask, we fool ourselves into thinking that this performance has a beginning and and end. It doesn’t.  Life is a series of events and circumstances, and opportunities to position yourself to be change agents in a world that seeks to mute our voices. The critical question we must keep before us is, “how can we use our unique perspectives, our brilliance, and our power; if we are hiding it?”  

There is power in our stories. There is power in our struggle. There is power in the ugliness that we all have and consistently rise above. There is a lie that we believe on a near daily basis that starts the moment we wake up and that lie is that the world doesn’t want or is not ready for us. It is. Not only is it ready. It needs us. Our children need teachers of color not just to be present but to use our stories to help them lead. They must lead their own learning, their own movements and in turn, tell their own stories. We are not responsible for saving our students, they will save themselves.   We are responsible for being our authentic selves and moving through challenges with a boldness and audacity that makes the existence of self-love an irrefutable truth.

Love. That’s the final call.

James Baldwin, said, “Love…love takes off the mask that we fear we cannot live without but we know we cannot live within”.

We know that we cannot live within the confines of the expectations others place on us. Often those confines fall tragically short of our dreams and visions we have for ourselves. Brother Baldwin hit the mark when he said that love will remove those masks. Loving yourself is a revolutionary act. Once you realize that you don’t have to wear the mask, you can begin the hard, and it is hard work, of loving yourself and then others. And being that love is a verb; it is always accompanied by actions. So once you show up to spaces in a radically authentic way; you can equip our students to do the same.

Barbara Mullen is currently serving as the Co-Director of the Learning Leader Network for the Center for Leadership and Educational Equity in Providence, Rhode Island. Dr. Mullen has a wide variety of experience in cultural competency, leading for instructional and systemic equity and supporting special populations. She has served students, families and educators in several large urban districts across various campus and district level leadership roles.

What do you think?

More Comments