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We Wear the Mask
A Poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Date of Publication
Milestone in Black Writing
Son of Slaves
Theme
Historical Background
Social Background
Meter
Figures of Speech
Universality
Text of the Poem
Annotations
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2007
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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).

Milestone in Black American Writing

.......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. 

Son of Slaves

.......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. 

Theme: Concealed Pain and Suffering

.......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 lifetimeu0096governmentally and otherwiseu0096and whites vastly outnumbered blacks. Sometimes, blacks even withheld their true feelings from one another, for defeat and desperation were difficult to articulateu0096and 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. 

Historical and Social Background

.......In 1896u0096the year of the poem's publicationu0096antipathy 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. Constitutionu0096approved in the post-Civil War erau0096granted 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. 
.......Meanwhile, hate groups inflicted inhuman treatment on innocent blacks, including brutal beatings. Lynchings of innocent blacks were not uncommon. Many so-called "enlightened" or "liberal-minded" Americans looked the other way, including law-enforcement officers, clergymen, politicians, and ordinary Americans. Some churches even limited membership to whites. Because blacks had been relegated to the lowest stratum of society, they had to attend poorly equipped schools and settle for menial jobs as porters, ditch-diggers, servants, shoeshine boys, and so on. Dunbar, a brilliant student in high school, worked as an elevator operator before his writing earned him elevated status. Hatred of blacks continued in the 20th Century. The Ku Klux Klan, which disbanded in the early 1870's, reformed in 1915 and attracted more than 4 million members nationwide by the mid-1920s. 
.......Prejudice against blacks in America remains strong today in spite of major advances in favor of blacks. Consequently, Dunbar's poem remains relevant. Schools throughout America continue to include it in curriculums. 

Meter

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:

           1................2................. 3...............4
    We WEAR..|..the MASK..|..that GRINS..|..and LIES

           1................2................. 3...............4
    It HIDES..|..our CHEEKS..|..and SHADES..|..our EYES,u0097 

           1................2........ 3.............4
    This DEBT..|..we PAY..|..to HU..|..man GUILE

           1...................2................. 3.................4
    With TORN..|..and BLEED..|..ing HEARTS..|..we SMILE

           1...................2............... 3.............4
    And MOUTH..|..with MYR..|..iad SUBT..|..le TIES

Foot 3, Line 5 ("iad"): You may have noticed that "iad" in Line 5 actually contains two syllables instead of one. However, Dunbar apparently turned "iad" into one syllable by eliding the "i" and thereby changing the the pronunciation of myriad from meer e id to meer yid

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Figures of Speech

Paradox

.......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. 

Alliteration

Repetition of consonant sounds, alliteration, occurs throughout the poem. In the following lines, the alliterating consonants are highlighted:

    WE wear the mask that grins and lies, 
        It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,u0097
        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.

Metaphor

.......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.

Apostrophe

Lines 1 and 2 of Stanza 3 present an apostrophe, a figure of speech that directly addresses an absent person or entity. 

    We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
    To thee from tortured souls arise. 
Universality

.......Since 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"u0096the 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
By Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

Text

We wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,u0097
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!

Annotations

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. 

lies, 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:
lies (1), eyes (2), over-wise (6), sights (7), cries (10), arise (11),  otherwise (14).
guile (3), smile (4), while (8), vile (12), mile (13).

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