When the Masks Slip

Nia-Alyese Boyd | 5 minute read

When the Masks Slip

Nia-Alyese Boyd | September 24, 2020 | 5 minute read

On August 26th of 2020, the sports world reeled from news of NBA players’ striking in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting at the hands of police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Social media lit up with varying opinions on the decision, but one frequent reaction was how surprised viewers were at the emotion behind sports analyst Chris Webber’s reasons for standing with the players. His stance and their reactions to it reminded me of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s 1913 poem, 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!

Black men, especially, but not only in masculine dominated arenas like sports or the military, have been required to hide their true selves behind hard brittle masks. These covers get them beyond doors too often shut in their faces, and help the wearers avoid conflict, whenever possible, in order to exist in white spaces with some sense of comfort. Their raw, authentic, whole, emotional and thoughtful selves are hidden – until something happens to shatter the concealments, one by one or all at once. I see this sudden shattering of masks occur frequently as Black people weigh the cost of success against the cost of silence. 

Moving up the proverbial ladders of success is hard. While this is also hard for Black women and other people of color, the processes and the outcomes manifest differently for Black men. 

Regardless of, and often because of their visibility, the impact of performing masculinity in predominantly white spaces taxes the mental health and wellbeing of even the most accomplished Black men. It is important that the collective trauma they experience in a culture that devalues their Black lives in very specific ways is acknowledged and addressed. It is important that our Black men do not have to become totally overwhelmed before they can not only express, but also be heard.  It is important that they are well supported when the masks fall off. I yearn for the day when they no longer have to wear them at all. 

Agreeing with the players’ decision to strike or Webber’s decision to support them is not needed to take pride in his revealed humanity, vulnerability, anger and solidarity with other Black men.  As a mother of three adult sons, he made me proud.

We must encourage these radical acts of realness whether they lift those masks with caution or rip them off all at once, whether they remove one while retaining others or shock the world when they drop them all and choose authentic ways of showing up. Seeing their unmasked selves in public and private spaces is inspiring. It is freeing. It is necessary.  It is unapologetic healing out loud.  

No one can breathe fully while wearing a mask. Removing them is a big step towards living in Black Male authenticity and joy.  However, living without those masks may not be easy.

Support Black men with:

Active listening – hear fully, verify understanding, and respond encouragingly.

Being part of a network – Participate in a supportive and trustworthy circle of friends and/or family.

Confidentiality – Don’t assume that what you see and hear is for everyone’s eyes and ears. 

Directness — If asked, give truthful feedback, but if you are out of your lane, admit that too.

Expression – If you are concerned that the men you care about are too overwhelmed to handle it on their own, find and share resources for counseling or therapy.

About the Author

Nia Boyd has a diverse background in education, social justice scholarship and pedagogy, intuitive counseling, and holistic healing.  Establishing and maintaining a sense of community is paramount in her work with individuals and teams seeking optimal success with work/life balance, conflict management, compassion in work-related missions, and writing projects.  Currently, Ms. Boyd works with Hurdle contributing to their original content as a writer, editor, and thought partner.


  1. Oliver Sims

    Powerful piece. #2Masks

  2. Keith

    This is very informative and needs to be applied every day we all need that support


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