Paul Laurence Dunbar – We Wear The Mask and eBook of the Complete Poems …

Paul Laurence Dunbar – African-American Poet    1872-1906

English: US postage stamp of 1975 (thus PD) de...

We Wear The Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,–

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world think other-wise,

We wear the mask!


“We Wear the Mask” is probably Dunbar’s most famous piece of poetry.  The author is writing about the “mask” that human beings wear in front of other human beings to disguise any pain, sadness, or turmoil that they may be going through at the time.  Dunbar is saying that humans often are not honest with those around them about their feelings because it is easier to make them believe everything is okay, and how true he is!  He is also stating in the third stanza that we call on God when no one else is looking and we are in pain, but we would rather let the world see us smile. . . . we would rather wear the mask.
The form Dunbar uses to write this poem is iambic tetrameter.  The rhyme scheme is AABBC.  The words he chooses to use to get his point across are used well.  For instance, in the first two lines he describes the mask as having a grin and being a liar.  The choice of his words in these first two lines paints a picture of a deceitful face, one that is not honest.  Since, normally, deceit and dishonesty are seen as bad things, the audience is left with the feeling that this mask that we wear is not a good thing.  The audience feels right from the start that we are wrong to wear this mask because it lies.  Then in the third stanza, he talks of our struggle behind the mask: “We sing, but oh the clay is vile beneath our feet,  and long the mile. . . .”  In this line, he could be talking of the struggle of the African-American race with slavery and oppression, since historically we are taught of the Underground Railway and the escapes by many slaves on foot, and also about the old Negro spirituals that were popular with the slaves at this time.  And in the last line he writes “let the world dream otherwise, we wear the mask!”  It’s interesting that he uses the word “Dream” because when we think of dreams we think of something that is not real, and that is what Dunbar is trying to get across to the reader–that this great facade, the “mask,” is not real, and the world is only seeing us in a disguise.

Theme: Concealed Pain and Suffering

…….To get by in America of the late 19th Century, blacks frequently concealed their pain, frustration, and anger from whites, as well as from one another. For blacks to reveal publicly their true feelings about whites’ maltreatment of them would have been to risk dangerous retaliation. After all, prejudice was official policy in Dunbar’s lifetime–governmentally and otherwise–and whites vastly outnumbered blacks. Sometimes, blacks even withheld their true feelings from one another, for defeat and desperation were difficult to articulate–and could impose deep anxiety upon loved ones. So it was that many blacks wore a mask that suggested happiness and contentment but concealed acute distress and pain. 




In this old garden, fair, I walk to-day
Heart-charmed with all the beauty of the scene:
The rich, luxuriant grasses’ cooling green,
The wall’s environ, ivy-decked and gray,
The waving branches with the wind at play,
The slight and tremulous blooms that show between,
Sweet all: and yet my yearning heart doth lean
Toward Love’s Egyptian fleshpots far away.
Beside the wall, the slim Laburnum grows
And flings its golden flow’rs to every breeze.
But e’en among such soothing sights as these,
I pant and nurse my soul-devouring woes.
Of all the longings that our hearts wot of,
There is no hunger like the want of love!

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