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Megan Thee Stallion’s IG Live video is a reminder of ‘We Wear the Mask’ poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar

After being shot nearly two weeks ago, she reemerged in our reductive frame wearing full armor

“I didn’t put my hands on nobody, I didn’t deserve to get shot.”

Perhaps out of all the tears, the fanning, the long pauses to gather herself, this is what made me feel the most despair as Megan Thee Stallion addressed her IG Live viewers on Monday about being shot in both her feet nearly two weeks ago.

As Megan spoke, I realized she had reemerged in our reductive frame of her life, alone and wearing full armor: a gray-to-lavender ombre wig, an extravagantly flipped bang she kept readjusting and a fully beat face. Even if we tried to look into Megan’s eyes to see what was there, she wore a set of eyelashes so big that the tears she furiously wiped away were undetectable, and the full set of ice dripping from her ears, fingers, wrist and neck, contrasted with the “Hot Girl” enshrined in her massive chain, blinded us.

“Why should the world be over-wise/In counting all our tears and sighs?” Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote in his poem We Wear the Mask in 1896. Dunbar was presumably using the collective “we” to refer to the Black experience in American society, an experience that requires Black people to maintain two external presentations in order to socially survive — their true face and the face they present to white society. Why should white folks be wise to the grief they give us, which lives in our bodies, the speaker of Dunbar’s poem reasoned. Why should they be able to tally up our tears? Why give them a measure of their success?

Megan Thee Stallion arrives at the Variety Hitmakers Brunch at Soho House on Dec. 7, 2019, in West Hollywood, California.

Steve Granitz/WireImage

Traditionally, prominent Black men have spoken for the Black race at large, collapsing our experience in this country into the Black male perspective, in the same way that white womanhood collapses our experience as marginalized women into watershed moments in feminist history that didn’t really include us. Lately, when I hear the great Black poems, speeches and quotes alive and well in the mouths and minds of Black folks — because they depict an experience that is still alive and well in this country — I hear insights that compound in the lives of Black women: Why should white folks and our men be over-wise to the grief they give us? Why should they be able to keep count of all our tears and sighs when their racism and misogyny are so often the reason behind them? Try triple consciousness — the mask of hyperawareness we must wear in a larger society and the armor of protection we must keep on even in our private lives, at home. Then somewhere behind it all, muted by what hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, our true selves, which we’ve learned to reveal only in the safest of spaces, usually alone. Alone where we are no one’s victim and cannot be accused of playing such.

Alone is the space that Megan was in while, online, people harassed her mentions, made joke memes and speculated about what she might have done to be shot. Quintessential victim-blaming. I cried as she explained because I already knew she didn’t deserve it, that she didn’t have to do anything to get shot. I knew because I’d had a loaded gun pointed at me by a man or asserted in my presence several times across my life. Sometimes this is just the irrational, emotional response of men.

And in that collapse of empathy and proper care from the men in our lives, who are too often our assailants, in the collapse of our perspective into their limited understanding, we develop a preemptive armor. Not an inherent or essential quality of Black women, but a protection that we install on and within ourselves in the face of systematic violence. Violence no one moves to defend us from, but which everyone — even sometimes one of us — has learned to see as a joke. “We wear the mask that grins and lies,” Dunbar wrote. “I’m smiling,” Megan announced in the video. “I’m back! … strong as f—!” she assured us, chuckling lightly, before ending our live look into her life and, hopefully, returning to a place where she can take off her mask and armor.

“Nay, let them only see us, while we wear the mask,” the armor of their making, hot girl s—.

Joy Priest is the author of HORSEPOWER (Pitt Poetry Series, Sept. 2020), winner of the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry. She is the recipient of the 2020 Stanley Kunitz Prize, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in APR, The Atlantic, Poets & Writers, Poetry Northwest, and Best New Poets, among others. Currently, she is a doctoral student in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Houston.