The Mask That Smiles And Lies by Forest Issac Jones

My life is my experience. That is my freedom.

Growing up is painful for a Southern Black boy. Being aware of the danger in the real world is the insult that I live with daily. It is the lived experience of being a Black man in America.

Our great nation still struggles with the bone deep hatred from years past, cultivated in the American soil. Turning a blind eye to it will not make it disappear. Only confronting it, dealing with it, and coming to terms with it will help exhume the past.

We are a world and country at so many crossroads, seemingly halfway to the end of Western civilization. The painful truth is that walls are being constructed everywhere in the United States, some seen and not seen like the one many politicians want built on the Mexican border. These unseen walls are around school districts, around neighborhoods, around voting districts, around lives. One useful consequence from the recent political turmoil is to finally and openly reveal a deep division in American society that has been many years in the making. The fractures between north and south, between the rich and poor, between the Liberals and everyone else, between those with and without medical care, and between white and brown and black, are real and need to be faced by all of us, not only those who voted for Obama and Clinton in last two elections.

 I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and I am proud of what I see. I am the color of caramel icing.

It is not easy as a Black man, but you continue to try to walk with your head high, looking straight ahead. I feel my skin settle my bones as if I was wearing a mask. A mask that both smiles and lies at times during the day. The mask that cloaks my weariness at times.

Living like this it is no surprise that so many Black people die of stress, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. It is a storm that can rage in your head, living like this. A storm of misery, confusion, and despair from time to time.

For people that look like me, we live in the inescapable atmosphere of systemic and casual racism that can create a type of toxic psychological stress, resulting in many different conditions—almost the type of PTSD that you hear of citizens dealing with in Northern Ireland who lived in the times during the Troubles between the Catholics and Protestants.

A woman that I dated years ago is from Belfast, Northern Ireland, a land where people who look similar, eat together, travel together, pray to the same God, read the Bible have spent hundreds of years at war over land, government and tribal thoughts. Racial similarities are no guarantee of living peacefully, any more than racial differences are doomed to fail.

Differences are not good things in the era of the Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat/Twitter generation. I call it the ‘FIST’ generation. A generation where people break up with boyfriends or girlfriends by text—or as the FIST generation calls it—‘ghosting’. However, in the era of weak and superficial connections this type of break up is not surprising. I’ve had it done to me—and it does not feel good. This is the age of the Internet that we live in—a place where people send friend requests and the number of likes on a post can send people to a euphoric high or a depressing state of loneliness. I want to be optimistic for our FIST generation. I want to keep up with them and not be afraid if there are things I don’t understand.

Many people in America believe that America was at its greatest in the 1950s, a belief that is completely foreign to me. The fifties were a decade when my parents couldn’t sit in a restaurant, couldn’t look a white person in the face, couldn’t go to certain colleges, or live in certain neighborhoods. Nostalgia is one of the strongest drugs of all. Nostalgia is discretionary—for some it is full of loving memories and a heartbreaking story of others.

Despair can sometimes suck the life out of you. However, the miracle of my aunt living after a stroke caused me to believe in the presence of the Lord indeed. I could feel the Holy Ghost around me during so many times in my life.

My earliest memories were of visiting my grandparents in North Carolina and attending the brightness of their Morning Star Church on Sunday mornings. There was always a hearty breakfast full of pancakes, eggs, and bacon which would prepare us for Pastor Lytle’s sermon. A sermon full of his arms outstretched like wings. Drums beating, music sweeping in, and the church feeling like a planet vibrating in space with the word of God being spread.

Hate will never fill my heart. I pitied these people who do not like me because of my color. I never hated them. No land is free of a history of violence and hate; no country’s hands are clean; nobody is completely innocent.

I still remember people saying the strangest things to me, ‘You’re the Whitest Black person I know…I don’t think of you as Black…..Your hair never looks messed up”..Those words took my breath away and I would have to hold in the tears. Things that I pretended didn’t bother me, but I never, ever would forget. I carry these moments with me, every slight; they are a part of my soul, setting in my deepest being like tumor that could never be removed.

Like many Black children, I feel the burden of our parent’s generation and what they had endured. The incredible odds that they faced and how they handled it all with dignity. Dignity in the eyes of having the ‘N’ word hurled at them (my parents had this when they protested across the street from the Klan during their college years in Sailsbury, North Carolina).

For survival, Black parents always think about love, prisons, churches, laws, punishments, and it will forever cover the landscape of their minds when dealing with their children.

For years I wondered why my parents were so hard on me, like a burden that I carried around. Heavier than the most weight you could carry and I carried it in my heart and soul. The storm that had raged in me during my teenage years was uprooted, and it disappeared.

I now understand the love my parents were showing me—tough love as we say. A love that wanted me to be aware of the boundaries that they have to live through. Reality. When you close your eyes to reality you are taking the chance of destroying your life.

Now, I want their hugs and their kisses, taking their hands and telling them how much I appreciate them and love them.

I grew up to be a History and Education major at college and learned to enjoy gaining knowledge about different countries and their histories—including our own. Race permeates every ounce of our lives in our great country. It is still one of the last unresolved issues left as a nation that we still have not acknowledged fully.

Some white people are nostalgic about the Civil War and when times were in their minds ‘simpler’. For someone that looks like me the nostalgic area for us starts around 1980. Definitely not as long.

As I’ve grown older and more comfortable in my role as an educator I feel both pride and fear, almost like a healing transformation.

This is a hard life that we all are a part of. We are living in a wicked world and it is difficult not to be worn down by all of the sadness and hatred around. Black people have survived many traumas over the years: lynching, rape, castration, and humiliation; living in fear daily, a fear that lived in their veins. However, this fear and trauma can turn into something good and it has. Survival, learning to live with resilience and endurance.

The heart can survive this. Your heart and your soul, obsessed with life’s journey, the mysterious and sometimes eventful end; and carried, heavy with memories and feelings. When a person can understand this, you can be released from it. It makes me think of one of my favorite Oasis songs—‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’.

Anger is a dangerous thing. The entire fabric of a community can be disrupted with anger, leaving behind a legacy of deep seeded hatred and bitterness which could haunt generations for years to come. There is no doubt that extreme inequality divides communities, and after some time the cracks are so large the entire wall comes crashing down. When you think about it, everyone has been on the losing side for a while now, but definitely nobody as much as the poor white working classes who have nothing but put their dreams in the ‘Make America Great Again’ movement, not even the belief in white supremacy can help them. The liberals see them as the ‘undesirables’. The Trump side see them only as a convenient pawn for its own political goals.

As a Black person we’ve all experienced racism and prejudice—the two are different. Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in. We deal with it as a race. It is an everyday occurrence. Small. Little. Every day. There is no doubt that we all live in very difficult political times currently, including the rise of Fascism across the globe. It is not coincidental that this far right rise has been hand in hand with the social media explosion and the FIST generation. We are all guilty of this—what do people say? Social media (especially Facebook) helps me stay in contact with my family. Email and Skype can do that as well—if we really wanted to contact these people we would. The good thing is that Facebook appears to be only for ‘old people’ now. However, there is no doubt hate and fear were spread on Facebook during the 2016 presidential election. Hate and fear by both sides of the political aisles.

All people are capable of good and evil but people are like complex movies from which certain acts can be shown and others ignored, depending on who is doing the directing. We see this almost everywhere now, the directors standing in front of a camera at this moment only have the most cruel and nasty scenes in their mind. In lands such as Cambodia and Iraq, these acts are not so long ago. Those of us who remember better scenes in movies must try to recreate those acts and scenes, and encourage others to do the right thing as Spike Lee would say.

I am often reminded of my grandmother, born and raised in the Jim Crow South, her mother left her as a young child and she raised her siblings in rural Georgia. To this day, her full body laugh is still one of the most joyful sounds I’ve ever heard. Nothing ever robbed her of the spirit of resilience.

That is love.

About the contributor

Forest Issac Jones was a finalist for both Pitch Perfect, part of the international crime festival in Sterling, Scotland in 2018 and for the 2019 London Book Fair 'Write Stuff' Contest. He was also shortlisted for the 2019 Fish Short Story Contest for 'Whatever You Say, Say Nothing'.

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