News & Ideas

Old Masks, New Face

Illustration by James Steinberg

When I returned to the States, forced back by COVID, I didn’t know what to do with myself. The job was off, all the community work shut down, my friendship group was in bunker mode, no one seeing each other, and because I didn’t feel like risking death I was doing the same.

Reading by Junot Díaz

The larger world was roiling, but my world—my small world—had gone quiet. Given all the shit that was coming down, perhaps it’s no surprise that I began to fall into depression. I don’t do depression light; once I fall into the hole, I go right to suicidal ideation. I knew I had to do something. My friends urged me to stay busy, my therapist urged me to stay busy. So I stayed busy. I taught myself to cook, I read until my eyeballs ached, I volunteered online—but it was the walking that helped the most.

All the research about how intrinsic walking is to our mental and physical health—count me a believer. Walking helped me focus; walking took the edge off; walking became survival for me. Kept me from obsessing on all the losses: my oldest sister dead of a stroke, my poor sister.

Was it Bellow or Hemon who said, “I saw and saw and saw”? Well, I walked and walked and walked. All over Boston and Cambridge. Three miles a day became five miles a day became ten miles a day, five days a week. I hadn’t been a runner for years but some habits die hard.

We all figure out ways to survive. I blew out shoes.

Which meant of course that I was wearing my mask a lot. Uncomfortable, at first. And then it became routine, and then by the second month it turned into something else. Something strange.

My face felt like it was cracking open. Don’t know how else to describe it.

“Maybe what’s happening is that after all these years my real face is finally emerging.”

One must understand: I grew up a poor immigrant Dominican boy of African descent during the Crack Kills ’80s. You didn’t grow up where I grew up and how I grew up and not learn to turn your face into a mask of sorts. (What they call in the biz “impression management.”) Whether it was with the other Black and Latine kids or with the white people who would call the cops on us for breathing, you learned quick to regulate your facial affect. When a stray frown could make you a menace or a tired look a criminal or a smile an easy mark, when everything you did or didn’t do with your face was misinterpreted and could put you in some kind of danger, oh how quickly you learned. Your face was an open door, and in my neighborhood we learned very early on to bolt it. Moving into predominantly white spaces of academia or literary culture didn’t change much—same shit, different types of consequences. Nothing special about any of it, really—just ask my sisters, one a lawyer and the other who used to sell high-end cars. They were the original Facedancers. 

But here I was wearing an actual mask for large chunks of my day and no one could see what my expression was. Me, whose face always meant too much—I suddenly had no face at all. Not really. I could smile, I could frown, I could laugh, and no one would be the wiser. (I think of my sister-friends reporting relief at no longer having to deal with random men telling them to smile.)  

After a while my face started feeling very odd. Like it wasn’t a part of me at all. Like it wasn’t my face anymore. And then I began to think . . . maybe that isn’t what’s happening.

Maybe what’s happening is that after all these years my real face is finally emerging.

Fascinating, and sorrowing, to finally experience what it’s like to have a face that’s free—a face that doesn’t have to pretend. A face that is safe, without danger.

A decolonial face.

And now it’s been over seven months and I wonder what will happen when, however far in the future (or near), we finally shed the masks. Truth be told I fear for this new face. I hope that when the masks do come off, the other, older mask doesn’t return. It would be nice if my first face would stick around.

I’ve only just started to know it.

This essay appeared in the fall issue of Radcliffe Magazine.

Junot Díaz was a 2003–2004 fellow at the Institute. He is the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead Books, 2007) and, most recently, of the picture book Islandborn (Dial Books, 2018).

News & Ideas