The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Masks” is a poem of forty mostly short, free-verse lines about the struggle African Americans face in defining themselves. The masks to which the title refers are not only those that blacks in America have adopted to protect themselves but also those that have been forced upon them.

The critic Houston Baker, Jr., sees two primary voices present in Sonia Sanchez’s poetry. She has what he calls a “Greenwich Village/E. E. Cummings” voice, marked by a personal tone and a loud, confrontational voice that seems to explore the revolutionary edges of what a black aesthetic might be. “Masks” integrates these two sides of the poet and comes up with something new: It has the reflective nature of some of Sanchez’s quieter poetry, but it also has a directly confrontational stance. Further, its images have an almost mystical quality distinct from the very direct quality of the images of many of her earlier poems.

The poem shows a willingness to be confrontational in its epigraph: “Blacks don’t have the intellectual capacity to succeed,” Sanchez quotes William Coors, chairman of Coors Brewing Company, which, in the early 1980’s, when the poem was written, had been accused of unfair hiring and labor practices by the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations. The implication is that such racist beliefs are both the cause and effect of living behind socially stereotyped masks.

The first stanza begins with images of rivers and lakes, imagery which by itself might suggest life and renewal. The lakes, however,...

(The entire section is 644 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The imagery that begins the poem—of water running, of a river flooding, of days growing short (as in the autumn), and of waiting for days to grow warm again—are images of natural life in motion. Sanchez uses this imagery to call attention to the stasis of waiting for the right season “to change our masks” and never finding the right one to abandon the masks.

“Our days are edifice,” she says, conjuring a powerful metaphor of days that are like imposing, unchanging buildings. The poem goes inside such a building, a temple, where the narrator hears hopeful words of the possibility of change—specifically of the possibility of taking off the masks that blacks have to wear to adapt to white society. The spirit of change sinks, however, as if into a twilight.

The appearance of the story of “Jack the Giant Killer” has a certain connection to the “one-eyed pimps” mentioned near the beginning. The “one-eye” suggests a Cyclops, perhaps the Cyclops who patrolled an island on which Odysseus and his crew landed in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.). The story is relevant in that the Cyclops spills the blood of, and eats, many members of Odysseus’s crew. Odysseus and his remaining crew escape by disguising (or masking) themselves as sheep, after having bloodied and blinded, but not killed, the giant Cyclops. Like the story of Jack and the beanstalk, this poem contains the possibility that a tricky, less powerful person can overcome a larger, more powerful one.

This poem, however, has a pessimistic view of the ultimate consequences of relying on such masking. The danger, the poem warns, is that it is hard to take off a mask that one has used for protection. This comes through especially in the three short, unrhyming couplets. The calls in each case to bring the mask have an almost ritualistic feel, as if donning this mask, which is associated with whiteness and blood, is part of a regularly recurring rite. That these three couplets are set aside on the page, interrupting several stanzas about a speaker in a temple, also contributes to the impression that donning this mask is a distorted and unfortunate ritual.