A Poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2007
Type of Work and Date of Publication
......."We Wear the Mask" is a lyric poem about oppressed black Americans forced to hide their pain and frustration behind a façade of happiness and contentment. Dunbar published the poem in 1896 in Lyrics of Lowly Life (Dodd, Mead, and Company).
.......Dunbar was believed to be the first black American to earn national recognition for his writing. He gained attention after selling a published collection of his poems to riders on the elevator he operated in a building in Dayton, Ohio.
.......Dunbar was the son of slaves, Matilda and Joshua Dunbar. His father escaped slavery and served in the Union Army during the Civil War. The extent to which the experiences of Dunbar's parents as slaves influenced his poetry is uncertain, but it was probably considerable. One can imagine Dunbar as a child listening at the fireside to stories his parents told about their lives as slaves.
.......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.
1896–the year of the poem's publication–antipathy toward blacks was widespread
in America. True, the Civil War had liberated blacks from slavery, and
federal laws had granted them the right to vote, the right to own property,
and so on. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution–approved
in the post-Civil War era–granted black Americans basic rights as citizens,
as did the Civil Rights Act of 1875. However, court and legislative decisions
later emasculated the legal protection of blacks. For example, the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled in 1896 (Plessy v. Ferguson) that it was legal to provide
"separate but equal" accommodations for passengers of Louisiana's railroads.
This ruling set a precedent that led to segregated schools, restaurants,
parks, libraries, and so on.
All the lines in the poem except Lines 9 and 15 are in iambic tetrameter. In this metric pattern, a line has four pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables, for a total eight syllables. The following presentation of Stanza 1 illustrates the pattern:
We WEAR..|..the MASK..|..that GRINS..|..and LIES,
Figures of Speech
.......If the poem expresses Dunbar's deep feelings as an oppressed black, it also expresses a paradox. On the one hand, it hides its central issue: Not even once does it mention blacks or racial prejudice. In other words, the poem itself wears a mask. On the other hand, it openly parades Dunbar's feelings as a frustrated black across the page. In other words, it doffs all pretense and imposture. Gone is the mask. What we have, then, is a poem that conceals everything and reveals everything at one and the same time. However, if the reader views the narrator/speaker as a kind of universal voice (raceless, ageless, etc.) rather than a specific man (Dunbar), then the paradox does not obtain. In the latter case, the general language could apply to anyone of any race who hides his or her feelings to get by in the world. For additional information, see Universality, below.
Repetition of consonant sounds, alliteration, occurs throughout the poem. In the following lines, the alliterating consonants are highlighted:
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.
should the world be over-wise,
.......The controlling figure of speech in the poem is a metaphor, expressed in the first line, then enlarged and extended in the rest of the poem. The metaphor compares mask of Line 1 to the false emotional façades blacks use to avoid provoking their oppressors.
Lines 1 and 2 of Stanza 3 present an apostrophe, a figure of speech that directly addresses an absent person or entity.
To thee from tortured souls arise.
Dunbar avoids specifically mentioning blacks and their suffering, the poem
could stand as a lament on behalf of all people forced to wear a "mask"–the
girl who hides her pregnancy from her parents, the boy who defensively
humors an abusive parent, the soldier under fire who writes home that all
is well when all is not well. One may fairly argue that the poem is about
every human being. Who, after all, has not worn a mask on occasion to conceal
hurt, frustration, disappointment?
We wear the mask
that grins and lies,
Why should the world be over-wise,
We smile, but, O great Christ,
mask: In this poem, a metaphor for the psychological façade that conceals the true feelings of the black mask wearer. Although the mask grins, the face beneath the mask may display desperation or disappointment. In the dramas of ancient Greece, actors wore masks to reveal to the audience the emotions of the characters they were portraying.
Mouth . . . subtleties: Mouth here is a verb meaning speak or talk. Myriad subtleties refers to the deft wordplay and behavior blacks resorted to in order to avoid offending whites and provoking retaliation.
eyes, guile, etc.: Dunbar uses the long i sound at the
end of every line, except the last lines of each stanza, to create rhyme
and rhythm. Note that companion words at the end of lines include the following: