Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask”

November 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” is a well-known work that highlights his ability to create emotionally moving standard English poems. In this fifteen-line poem, Dunbar points to the suffering of black individuals and the need to hold happy deminors in order to survive. He underlines the idea that black individuals are an example of strength and suffering but maintained the allusion of being docile. “We wear the Mask” is written in a closed form of iambic tetrameter with a regular rhyme pattern. Dunbar constructs the regular rhyme pattern in the last lines of the second and third stanzas with “We Wear the Mask”.

“The Mask” is an obvious and clear heart of the poem and its meaning.

The opening words are not only the poem’s refrain but also the title and clearly depict the point of Dunbar’s poem. The repetition of the phrase “We wear the mask” stands as a reminder of how persuasive the mask is; “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries, to thee from tortured souls arise” (lines 10-11). There may be a smile on their face but under that shield is a world of torture and pain. Repetitive phrases in poems point to important details, but the fact that “We wear the mask” is also used in the poem adds to the phrases significance. As the poem continues through narrator’s perspective of the masks is changed from a tone of anguish to a sense of pride in its benefit. Dunbar uses a continuous repetition of black individuals hiding their emotions behind the mask. This is done to highlight the deception that the black individual is happy rather than a “tortured [soul]” (line 12) The first two lines, “we wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes” (line 2) introduces this image of deception and hiding. The mask hides the cheeks and most importantly the eyes. The human eyes are linked to the essence of humanity as the “eyes are the window to the soul”. It is important the mask is hiding the cheeks and eyes because that is where humans most likely express their emotions, thus supporting the idea of deception.

The masked individuals create grins despite having a “torn and bleeding (heart)” (line 5) to create a more pleasing images to the white community. This is a introduction to the image the white Americans see when visualizing black individuals. The use of the word “grin” rather than smile is more deceitful than “happy”. The imagery behind grin can be alluded to grinning and bearing the pain to hide true feelings. This smile is hiding the full extent of the emotional conflict black individuals go through.

In transition to the third stanza, the poem morphs from the sense of mourning the “mask” to being content with its meaning. The speaker presents “Nay, let them only see us, while we wear the mask” (lines 9-10). These lines infer the insinuation that wearing the mask is not as horrendous as it seems, there is a sense of benefits behind it. At this moment in the poem, Dunbar is presenting the idea that the black individuals should be content with shrinking his emotions and hiding behind the mask. However, he is not inferring that the black community should be joyful in this situation but rather highlight the change of perception of the mask. There is no longer a sense of mourning with the use of the mask but rather a pride in this tool of advantage. The punctuational use of the exclamation point in the final stanza of the repeated “We wear the mask!” (line 15) proved this point. There is a sense of jubilance in its present suggesting African Americans will use the mask associated with lies as a tool.

One of the most intriguing elements of Dunbar’s poem is the utilization of “we”. The “we” used is directed towards black American people as a whole, but it can also be read in a general or more universal sensed focused on all people. Read both ways this perspective is specific and universal at the same time. By including “we” in the title and the refrain it presents the ides that he is included in this “we”. That we all apply the idea of wearing a mask to deceive others into being whoever we want. In line 3 there is a more developed inference that the speaker is speaking to a more collective and universal audience. The “we” used with “human guile” show the shared experience so it is not just limited the black American experience. The more specific and exclusive perspective of the use “we” is found in line 4; “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile”. The speaker talks about torn and bleeding hearts which suggest fresh wounds, because fresh wounds bleed. In a historical sense this pain of slavery and abuse in the black community is still fresh. In lines 9 and 15 (the refrain) the poem adopts both the universal and specific experience as the “ we wear the mask” stands alone.

These stand-alone lines allow the reader to interpret and draw whatever connections they may.

“The Mask” is an obvious and clear heart of the poem and its meaning. The opening words are not only the poem’s refrain and the title but clearly depict the point of Dunbar’s poem. The repetition of the phrase “We wear the mask” stands as a reminder of how persuasive the mask is; “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries To thee from tortured souls arise” (lines 10-11). There may be a smile on their face but under that shield is a world of torture and pain. Repetitive phrases in poems point to important details, but the fact that “We wear the mask” is also used in the poem adds to the phrases significance.

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