The story of Odysseus and the Cyclops bears an interesting relationship to this poem. What Sanchez sees happening to African Americans is analogous to the plight of Odysseus and his men, who are never able to take off their sheep’s clothing.
“Masks” invites direct comparison to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” written eighty-eight years earlier. Dunbar’s poem talks of wearing the mask “that grins and lies” and “hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.” Dunbar sees wearing a mask as an essentially effective defensive strategy, but one with a cost.
Sanchez’s poem focuses on the cost. Once masks are worn, they stay on. As she implies at the beginning of the poem, seasons change, but the time for taking off the masks never arrives. The need to look at the world directly is understood, but still the masks are donned. The mask changes not only the way one is seen but also the way one sees.
Such masks are ultimately ways for people who are black to live in a white society. As such, they are “white” masks, “chalk” masks, masks that draw the blood of the wearer because they do not let even the wearer of the mask see himself or herself clearly. The result is that people “speak without speaking,” meaning that they let the mask do the speaking for them.
The final cost is seen in statements such as the racist statement made by William Coors that Sanchez uses to begin the poem. Masks are used as Dunbar’s poem makes clear, to hide one’s true thoughts from such a potentially antagonistic person. It is easy for such a person to see only what he or she wants to see or is willing to see of the people behind the masks.
It would not have been out of character for Sonia Sanchez to write an angry and compelling diatribe in response to the statement by William Coors. What she wrote instead is a meditative, and to an extent mournful, account of the pain of living behind masks and the need, but also the difficulty, of removing such masks.