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Online Feature: “Masks” by Yusef Komunyakaa

It was the mask engaged your mind,

And after set your heart to beat,

Not what’s behind.

— W.B. Yeats, “The Mask”

Upon first glance at Tyagan Miller’s gallery of troubling and troubled faces, you might wish instead for a few classical portraits garnered from the Schomburg Collection. You could even long for a glimpse of the rural poor captured in Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson’s And Their Children After Them. Or, you might squint, hoping to blur these “high risk” faces until they become the sardonic images of Life Smiles Back, LIFE magazine’s compilation of photographs. You may squirm and shift your feet to run; but the faces captured here cannot easily be outdistanced.

This photographer didn’t rig lights or backdrops to soften the features of his subjects. Some of us may question why the camera wasn’t forced to lie a bit, in an era when we rely so heavily on airbrushing. These photos are basic; there aren’t any models among them. The raw energy of lived lives demands attention. Of course, this is what has been cultivated; behind these bold facades are faces of near-lost. They are teenagers, but beneath the defensive scowls or super-cool personas are etched lines of premature defeat. Someone like Janusz Korczak, The King of Children, would readily realize such signs, and probably would have said:  “White and brown and black and yellow,/ Mix the colors with one another./ People are still brothers and sisters/ Of one father and one mother!” Too many inner cities across this country are hotbeds for defeatism and illusion, peopled with the same faces Miller captures in Indianapolis.

In spite of our country’s obsession with visual cliché, the photographer didn’t have to encourage these high school students to pose for this gallery of gestures. However, I’m willing to bet that most of them wanted to reject the final portraits; the transparent Hollywood glamour wasn’t there and they felt the camera had betrayed them. As in the movie The Mask, their disguises also cling to their faces until they are claimed by illusions. The photos throw back a frightening reality. Are these “high risk” students surprised to find themselves wearing masks that society created for them, to find their features have hardened into caricatures of their real selves?

Most of the eyes look so old, and it seems as if they have remained awake endless hours to stand guard over some facet of innocence that remains. Their survival masks are devouring them. Many of the faces cannot even guess when the masks were created; each one is like some psychological caul which simultaneously protects and diminishes. In essence, they have only embraced their inheritance.

It isn’t difficult to see my own face in this gallery. Through some hoodwinked chance, some counter-screw on the will, some accidental providence—whatever it is—I found myself a few steps beyond the life that had been delivered to me in rural Louisiana. I took the inchworm’s motto to heart (I cannot say why), and began to slowly move beyond my presupposed birthright.

Gazing at Miller’s photographs, I find myself covering parts of faces—eyes, mouth, chins—with my hands. Sometimes the innocence reappears; I am startled to find glimpses of innocence still alive behind the masks and posed braggadocio. The camera has captured a composite of contradictions—softness beneath the hardness. And this is what’s interesting to me about the photographs. Many of the images aren’t that different from the bad-boy survival poses collected around 1825 in New York City:  the Forty Thieves, the Kerryonians, the Roach Guards, the Shirt Tails, and the Plug Uglies. What is different is that these contemporary posers seem so eager to display material objects:  gold chains, a fifty-dollar bill tucked into a cap, hoop earrings, starter jackets, sneakers, etc. Is this surprising? How are the material objects connected to the masks?

The masks are invented to intimidate because the wearers don’t feel safe. Tyagan Miller shows us how some masks are no more than reflections these young people have inherited. They are rehearsals for adulthood, informed by their observations of the adult world around them. I think of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s infamous lines:  “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 that smile/ And mouth with myriad subtleties.”

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This essay appeared in Indiana Review 19.1, Spring 1996.

Anna Cabe (Web Editor): When I read ekphrastic work, I’m hoping to find something like this. In this wide-ranging essay, Komunyakaa grapples with the work of Hoosier photographer Tyagan Miller, as well as the nineteenth-century gangs of New York City, the Jim Carrey movie The Mask, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry, and his own Louisiana childhood, to examine the dehumanizing pressures of institutionalized racism and poverty. That this complexity is distilled into a mere 700 words is a testament to the mastery of Komunyakaa’s craft.

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Yusef Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana. His poetry collections include I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), Dien Cai Dau (1988), Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1994), and most recently, Emperor of Water Clocks (2015). He has received awards and honors such as the Wallace Stevens Award and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Louisiana Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1999 to 2005. He has taught at many institutions, including Indiana University and Princeton University, and currently is the Distinguished Senior Poet at New York University.

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