For the last couple of months, we have been bombarded with rhetoric going back and forth about Confederate statues and monuments all over the country. Even here in our area, the great debate is brewing about Nathan Bedford Forrest, who has a statue in Myrtle Hill Cemetery at the entrance to South Rome. I also believe that the Forrest Hotel is connected to Forrest’s history.

I have been in the cemetery many times and had always heard that the statue was there, but I never visited it. After the subject was brought up, my husband, who spent most of his adult life in St. Albans, New York, asked me where it was located. I said come on, we will ride to Rome and I will show you. We started from the bottom of the hill and circled up. When he had driven to the very top, my anxiety kicked in. After the dangerous drive, I realized that I had forgotten where it was placed.

When we got down to the bottom again, I called my oldest son who had lived in South Rome for many years. He knew exactly where the Forrest statue was and in which direction it was facing. By his tone, I could surmise that he did not seem to like what he was sharing with me. He gave me the directions as well as the name of the street closest by from which to view the statue. We circled below and finally spotted it, and by that time our curiosity had left.

Later that week, when I mentioned the discussion that was taking place here to my youngest son, who no longer lives here, his first question was, “Well, Momma, where is it located?” I said, “It is in the cemetery.” He said, “Well, that is a good place for it to be. Just leave it there.”

I followed up by saying that it is not properly labeled. I told him that it misrepresents history terribly. History states that he was a Grand Knight of the KKK. Leaving it there would be fine with me if the inscription of who he truly was is engraved on the statue and other attributes are removed.

I find it very interesting to see statues of people who have participated in horrific acts of violence against other human beings given such great honor and praise. I know that there are many others who also wonder, like Mr. Walraven, Mr. Jones and many others.

My former principal, who transitioned several weeks ago, called me one day shortly before passing and said “Mrs. Samuel, I have been talking to my wife and we just cannot understand why people are so very cruel and insensitive to the feelings of other people who are different.” He asked if I had read the Rome newspaper that day. I told him that I had not but would check the paper after we hung up. He was referring to the Confederate flag that was part of the advertisement for a bank. He could not understand why a lending institution would let the Confederate flag be a part of its promotion.

After examining the paper, I did not call him back. The reason I did not was because he and many other Caucasians do not realize how much of that insensitivity Black and Brown people have to tolerate. If we got bent out each time it happened, we would be distraught and emotionally upset daily. Our emotions have grown callous and many of us do not feel at all. Most people have learned to play it off and others pretend that they do not see or hear. That kind of behavior turns us into complex people who, in many instances, do not understand ourselves or each other.

Several weeks ago, a dear friend stated that she has concluded that we (Black people) wear a mask. I told her that her opinion was correct. I reminded her of the poem written by Paul L. Dunbar titled “We Wear the Mask.” I reminded her that for 400 years, in order to survive, we have worn masks.

This poet was describing us. He said that we laugh because it keeps our true feelings from showing. He stated that the world, or people who abuse us, would be too wise if we did otherwise. He stated that we only want the world to see us when we wear the mask.

Dunbar writes that when we smile, it is because we do not want the world to see how our heart bleeds. He goes on to say that when we smile and call out to Christ, telling him about our tortured soul and how tough is the walk that we have to walk just to get through life, no one knows what agony and long suffering are behind those cries. We keep the pain that we feel hidden so that the world will dream otherwise as we continue to wear the mask.

My friend asked, “Willie Mae, is that good?” I answered her as honestly as I could by saying, “No, I think not.”

She went on to ask if there is a way to undo that. I told her that it is like the commercial that says do not let them see you sweat. Which means, do not let people know that you hurt or that they can hurt you. Mean spirited individuals will put salt in the wound. Even when our torn hearts are bleeding, we get up and dust ourselves off and say, “Oh, that did not hurt” and walk away, aiming to find a nice soft shoulder to lean on and cry.

The mask is so much a part of us, as seen in the example of the slave who had been working for his master so long that, one day, when a visitor knocked on the door and asked for the master, the slave told the visitor that he could not see his master because, “We are sick.”

Here’s the thing ... Yes, we do wear the mask.

Willie Mae Samuel is a playwright and a director in Rome. She is the founder and director of the African American Connection of the Performing Arts Inc. and a 2020 Heart of the Community Award of Honor recipient.

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