Prayer to Masks

By Abby Sells   (Taylor University, spring 2013)

It has almost been a year since I left for my semester in Australia. My deepest hope when I was there would be that even when I left my heart would always be affected by what I learned. Thankfully the Lord continues to put speakers, classes, friends and opportunities into my life that engage what I learned during my four months in Sydney.

Recently, I read a poem in my world lit class by Leopold Sedar Senghor. Though it is about Africa, my heart was reminded of the Aboriginal people and stories I heard.


Prayer to Masks

Mask! Masks!

Black mask red mask, you white-and-gold masks

Mask of the four points from which the Spirit blows

In silence I salute you!

Nor you the least, the Lion-headed Ancestor 

You guard this place forbidden to all laughter of women, to all smiles that fade

You distill this air of eternity in which I breathe the air of my Fathers.

Masks of unmasked faces, stripped of the marks of illness and the lines of age 

You who have fashioned this portrait, this my face bent over the alter of white paper 

In your own image, hear me!

The Africa of the empires is dying, see the agony of a pitiful princess

And Europe too where we are joined by the navel. 

Fix your unchanging eyes upon your children, who are given orders 

Who give away their lives like the poor their last clothes.

Let us report present at the rebirth of the World

Like the yeast which white flour needs.

For who would teach rhythm to a dead world of machines and guns? 

Who would give the cry of joy to wake the dead and the bereaved at dawn?

Say, who would give back the memory of life to the man whose hopes are smashed?

They call us men of coffee cotton oil

They call us men of death

We are the men of the dance, whose feet draw new strength pounding the hard earth. 


I did not understand this poem at first and thought my professor did an amazing job at bringing meaning to the poem. Briefly let me share how my professor helped me connect this writing to the Aboriginal people I met.

The first half of the poem is the image of a man going before the Masks–the ancestors of his people. He talks of the extreme reverence “In silence I salute you!” Often, I was amazed at the respect that the Aboriginals had for their land for their people. The poem conveys that this is eternity to this man–whether or not I believe spiritually in the same powers I can recognize that these are not myths but truth to him. I spent a weekend in an Aboriginal community where I wrestled with what ‘truth’ meant. This poem reminded me of how I learned just how westernized Christian my beliefs were and my inability to give grace to others who believed in a different spirituality.

The second half of the poem implores the ancestors to listen to this man’s call. He recounts the horror done to Africa by Europe–it is real and it is painful. I remembered many of the faces of people who shared their stories and the injustice that was brought upon the Aboriginals. Moreover, the narrator says no longer must the Africans succumb to the stereotypes. The world is moving and his people must show up–“let us report present at the birth of the world”. He’s gathering those around him, rallying that they believe not only are they worthy as humans and as a culture but also as a necessity to the world around them, “like the yeast which white flour needs”.  The man says who will bring rhythm to this machine world? The African people can offer something no one else can. And most powerfully that they are not what the world has defined them but, “We are the men of the dance, whose feet draw new strength pondering the hard earth”. This powerful image reminded me of the song and dance of different Aboriginal clans.

Hopefully I do no injustice to relate Africans and Aboriginals for surely they are entirely two different people. But the message appears familiar to me in what I learned this past semester as Aboriginal people are striving to find a place in this world—a fine balance of their traditions and a westernized world.

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