Poem #29: We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleWe Wear the Mask

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


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 dream otherwise,
       We wear the mask!


For me, when I think of Dunbar, it's this poem that comes to mind. Published in 1896, it came out in the same year as the Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the Supreme Court, which legally sanctified segregation throughout the US. There's an interesting parallel between that "separate but equal" standard and the idea of the mask. A mask is a single unified and either static or limited response. Behind the mask, all the complexities of life are writ larger on one's face; in front of the mask, and everyone is treated in a limited and discerning way.  Both the wearer and the audience face a mask but their experiences are not the same. I know that this is not what Dunbar had in mind but I think it's an interesting way to consider the poem when segregation was already present in the culture (even before the Supreme Course decision, which is more likely when Dunbar wrote it). 

In this way, it ties more strongly to the other thought that comes to mind when reading this and it is   W.E.B. Dubois's idea of the double-consciousness.  I first came across it in his book The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, though he also wrote about it in The Atlantic in 1897. The basic premise is that Black people, in order to survive in a white and hostile culture, must carry with them two ways of existing. The first way is how they see and understand themselves--who they are. But the second is always being aware of how they are seen through the eyes of that white and hostile culture. They must balance these two constantly as part of a state of self-preservation. This dual-awareness also makes me think of Dunbar's Mask because it, too, speaks of how one must put up a front in order to preserve one's own sense of self and that sense of self is not to be shared with those who would do violence against one as the poem indicates.  

One other element about this poem in reading it now that sticks out that I'm fascinated by is how nearly all the lines end with a word that has a long "I" sound (Lies, eyes, guile, smile). While it's clear that's part of the rhyming scheme, what stands out to me is that there's a repeated "I" throughout the poem as if the speaker is drawing out that tension between the speaker and society.  The only other word to end a line that doesn't have the long I is "mask".  Thus, looking at the ends of the lines, if feels often like a long refrain of I's followed by "mask."  I mask or I/mask.  It reiterates the richness of the individual and the dullness of the mask. The "I" is embedded in a variety of ideas and actions (sighs, smile, wise, cries) but the mask is just the mask.  

Those are my thoughts.  What did you find interesting about the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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