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 dream otherwise,
        We wear the mask!

— Paul Laurence Dunbar

Though he remains known primarily as one of the most distinguished authors of African American dialect poetry around the turn of the 20th century, Paul Laurence Dunbar also penned noteworthy non-dialect pieces such as this one. Though short in length (just three stanzas) and relatively simple in construction (only two phonetic rhyme sounds repeated, with a non-rhyming refrain concluding the latter two stanzas), “We Wear the Mask” speaks illuminatingly to the complex emotional juggling act that black Americans were forced to engage in to cope with the prejudice and bigotry of their white neighbors in the post-bellum United States.

Dunbar begins and ends his piece with the title-phrase, “We wear the mask,” as well as concluding the middle stanza with it. The mask that “grins and lies” refers not to an actual piece of costuming, but to the face people put forth when they feel the need to act content and happy even though their true emotional state falls far short of carefree bliss; in fact, the poet states that it is “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.” This duplicitousness derives not from a desire to deceive maliciously, but rather simply to maintain mental stability. Dunbar asks “Why should the world be over-wise / In counting all our tears and sighs?” because the world he speaks of often views him and others of his skin color through the distorted lens of racism, and would not look sympathetically on his genuine frustrations and concerns. As a result, he remains content to “let them only see us, while / We wear the mask.”

At the same time, Dunbar stresses at various points how this practice of wearing a mask of false-positivity is only done out of utter necessity, and the very fact that such masks are required for African American people to sustain themselves is inherently perverse and damaging. When he writes, “We sing, but oh the clay is vile / Beneath our feet and long the mile,” the soil he speaks of is American, yet some of his fellow Americans choose to let bigotry and racial-hatred fuel their conduct. The American “clay is vile” because not all Americans are abiding by the mantra that ‘all men are created equal.’ Dunbar describes the mask and its significance to highlight the bigger problem: the need of such masks in the first place.

Efficacious in its emotion and keen in its brevity, “We Wear the Mask” has the potential to be glossed over as a work merely commenting on the social pressure to appear happy. We all tend to smile to those we see at the grocery store and at dinner parties, hoping to avoid giving any glimpse of our true, less-composed mental state, lest we get drawn into unpleasant conversation. But to reduce Dunbar’s poem to just a ‘be true to yourself’ slogan would be missing the message entirely. He writes of the mask not to criticize its implementation, but to give voice to the “tortured souls” of black Americans that lie shrouded beneath masks, to articulate their longing for the day when disguising real feelings about their second-class treatment will no longer be necessary.

— Lucas Morel ’18

Dunbar, Paul.  “We Wear the Mask.”  Poetry Foundation, Web.  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44203/we-wear-the-mask

[For more by Paul Laurence Dunbar, his collected poetry can be found for purchase here: https://www.amazon.com/Collected-Poetry-Paul-Laurence-Dunbar/dp/0813914388/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1509944960&sr=8-2&keywords=paul+laurence+dunbar&dpID=41KM124WHJL&preST=_SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch ]