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.)