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 originally published “We Wear the Mask” as part of his first poetry collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life, in 1896. One of the first African American poets to gain critical attention in the 19th Century, Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” offers light into life as an African American in the 19th Century.
“We Wear the Mask” is a lyric blend of author and reader. Rather than telling a story, Dunbar uses second person plural to create a shared experience between the reader and persona. The poem invites the reader to imagine what life may be like in the 19th Century for an African American citizen in the United States. Through his style choice a line such as, “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries,” becomes all the more powerful a contrast between physical expression and what may be emotionally felt inside.
Often Dunbar uses a more comedic formula in his lyrical poetry to maintain an appearance on the surface, covering the emotions anchoring the poetry like anger and frustration. Joanne Baxter describes how Dunbar’s use of the“‘we’ of the poem is the black folk collective . . . or perhaps the real Dunbar lifting the mask from his danced language to speak plainly and unequivocally.” The use of the “Mask” as a recurring theme in this poem begs the question of just how often and how much of Dunbar’s work is rooted in the masked persona, and how much is the true emotion of author putting away his mask.
Bibliography and Further Reading Joanne M. Braxton, On “We Wear the Mask,” MAPS: Modern American Poetry Site; Paul Laurence Dunbar, Poetry Foundation; Willie J. Harrell Jr., We wear the mask : Paul Laurence Dunbar and the politics of representative reality (2010); Herbert Woodward Martin & Ronald Primeau, eds., In his own voice : the dramatic and other uncollected works of Paul Laurence Dunbar (2002).
Credits Composed by Fletcher Rice, Fall 2018. Reading by Fletcher Rice.