We Wear the Mask

We Wear the Mask

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

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!

________________________

Who is Paul Laurence Dunbar?

Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 – February 9, 1906) was an American poet, novelist, and playwright of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in Dayton, Ohio to parents who were enslaved in Kentucky before the American Civil War, Dunbar began writing stories and verse when he was a child. He published his first poems at the age of 16 in a Dayton newspaper, and served as president of his high school’s literary society.

Much of Dunbar’s more popular work in his lifetime was written in the “Negro dialect” associated with the antebellum South, though he also used the Midwestern regional dialect of James Whitcomb Riley. Dunbar’s work was praised by William Dean Howells, a leading editor associated with the Harper’s Weekly, and Dunbar was one of the first African-American writers to establish an international reputation. He wrote the lyrics for the musical comedy In Dahomey (1903), the first all-African-American musical produced on Broadway in New York. The musical later toured in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Dunbar also wrote in conventional English in other poetry and novels. Since the late 20th century, scholars have become more interested in these other works. Suffering from tuberculosis, which then had no cure, Dunbar died in Dayton, Ohio at the age of 33.

Understanding this poem, to some extent, requires the context of knowing who Dunbar is.

There are fifteen lines in this poem, separated into three stanzas. The first is five lines, the second is four lines, and the third stanza is six lines.

Let’s look at the first stanza:

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.

The first line gives us the title of the poem. The first line also lets us know that the mask is negative by telling us that it lies. The poem also uses the word “we.” The Speaker might be referring to all of humanity but it is more likely that his “we” was tailored to his audience. Dunbar was African-American, and the poem was written in the late 19th century. It may be that “we” is specifically intended to refer to African-American readers.

The lie told by the mask is its grin. Beneath the mask we are told the wearers have torn and bleeding hearts.

In the second stanza:

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.

This starts with a question. Wisdom would be looking below the mask and seeing tears and sighs in great enough numbers that they merit counting. The Speaker asks why should the world do this? This is a serious question, deserving a serious answer, but it is apparent that the Speaker does not expect an answer. In any case, the Speaker – for reasons possibly inferable though unstated – does not want the world to be wise.

Sharing emotional hurt and grieving together over it – or failing that attempting to address those grievances – confers a sense of emotional intimacy or closeness. In the same vein, seeing emotional hurt and ignoring that hurt confers on the world an even greater villainy. The mask represents a barrier between truth and ignorance. It is a barrier between “we” and “the world.” The Speaker tells us that “We wear the mask” but we do not know who made the mask. Is ignorance something crafted by the world and worn by the “we” or is it made by the “we” to shield against the indifference of the world?

In the third stanza:

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!

The final stanza starts with a pair of contrasts between outward appearance and the truth beneath. Smiles are contrasted with the cries of tortured souls. Singing is contrasted with hard roads and a long journey. The Speaker defiantly concludes that “we” keep the truth hidden and the world in ignorance. “But let the world dream otherwise” is a call for the world to remain in ignorance.

What is the source or motivation of that desire? That is left up to the interpretation of the reader. One might speculate that the sentiment comes from a belief that “we” don’t need “you” (i.e. “the world” so often referred to throughout the poem) and that “we” will endure and eventually overcome anyway. In that regard, the mask may represent a desire for the “we” group never to be part of “the world” even after eventual victory.

The poem is dark and it calls its readers to be reflective. At the time of its writing, it applied to a specific group of oppressed people at at specific time in history. The barrier between the two sides of a class struggle, though, is universal.

Is wearing the mask the right decision?

What do you do if you identify with the world and begin to notice masked people around you?

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