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In one of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s most renowned poem’s “We Wear the Mask,” he expresses the harsh reality of the black race in America and how they conceal their anguish, sorrow, frustration, and discontent under a ‘mask’ as an endurance strategy towards whites.
‘We Wear the Mask.” considerably an early poem, is spoken by black people and for black people. The “we” in the poem is the black folk collective, the speaker a Dunbar persona, or perhaps the real Dunbar lifting the mask to speak plainly and unequivocally about the double nature of the black experience. He draws aside the veil if only briefly, into the inner circle of the black community. In life, the mask covers the face and eyes, and the “torn and bleeding hearts” and the “myriad subtleties” that are mouthed are deliberately indirect and misleading; the speaker of this poem steps out from behind the mask, yet, demonstrates briefly a skilled mastery of all the false “debts” that separate him from genuine completeness. The mask is then put back.
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 a mouth with myriad subtleties.
In the opening lines, “We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes”, Dunbar is cautious to illustrate that the mask is grinning and not the black man. Even though the bard’s use of the word “lies” is perhaps straightforward, it might be otherwise. If the mask is lying to the wearer, the agony of the black man is conveyed. The hiding of cheeks and eyes is the camouflage of those features of the face that not only expose tears but also lend eminence to smiles.
To be sightless to these facial features of a person is to be sightless to his individual humanity. Hopping to the conclusion of the stanza, Dunbar states that black people “mouth with myriad subtleties,” with the accurate handling of the verb “mouth,” which deepens the mask idea by signifying pretense, exaggeration, contortion, and deformation of one’s actual facial appearance. In featuring these actions “myriad subtleties,” Dunbar obliquely praises the artistic creativeness that black people have been enforced either to waste or to constrict because of the vagaries of white prejudice. The affluence of allusion in only three lines of this poem signifies the comprehensive assessment it should yield.
By specifying in the subsequent verse that the world would be “overwise” insensitively detailing the despair of black people, Dunbar identifies that individuals risk their emotional balance in absorb themselves too long or too intensely in the tragedy of others. Briefly, they know excess for their individual good. Let them dream, ends the poet, expressing that romantics have only two fates: they either perish in their slumber or they awaken.
Dunbar often uses comedy as a mask, set inactivity by language, to screen his angriest messages. “We Wear the Mask,” one of Dunbar’s most famous poems, has been read and reread by critics. It may be examined not only for what it confirms of Dunbar’s ethnic and artistic responsiveness but for the way in which–potentially, at least–it disengages the dialect poems. For Dunbar, the masked language of black dialect was part and parcel of the larger American experience. Stating the words “We smile”, shows that they wear their smiling mask every day with tortured souls beneath and that they pray to Christ to find peace in the awful world they live in.
The words “clay is vile” set the setting for slavery on a plantation in the south where clay is popular. The plantation is where they worked and lived. The words “world dream otherwise,” declare that they otherwise will turn their head the other way and think differently. Some of them will depart this life with their mask on and by no means apprehend the truth. Some will wake up without the mask and disclose the truth that it is erroneous. In Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem, he associates to the black race and uses extensive allegory to have a piercing insight into the realism of the grimaced race in America, which struggles for parity and harmony within a racial society.
“We Wear the Mask” is clearly about Dunbar’s views on racism and the struggle for equality for African-Americans. How he wrote it in an artful, refined dissimulation of his true self is what is so beautifully unique. This additionally stresses the idea of the ‘mask’, being concealing and elusive, in many ways. This particular piece of work is unparalleled, not only to the literary world but the author himself. He wrote with his experiences as an African- American but presented them in a way that any would understand. Its purpose was to enable the poem to be applicable to any reader, permitting it to make an impact and facilitate a collective empathy between humans.
It is evidently one of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s most famous poems where he describes the harsh reality of the black race in America and how they hide their grief, sadness, and broken hearts under a mask for a survival strategy towards whites. This poem cries out with the hurt that African-Americans, throughout history, suffered. To be able to endure this daily persecution, these people had to draw on their inner strength.
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When Dunbar wrote, “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,” it is obvious of the agony felt and of how a smile is sometimes worn in order to camouflage one’s true emotions. A profound, spiritual devotion was their only saving grace. One’s spirituality can carry them through even the most dreadful situations. This idea is evident when Dunbar penned the lines, “we smile, but, O great Christ, our cries To thee from tortured souls arise.” When all else had failed, slaves could pray and feel that God had heard them. At last, their cries would be heard, their prayers answered, and their hearts relieved.
According to Peter Revell, Dunbar’s poetry on black themes is written from within black familiarity but that understanding is offered in such a way that the reader, black or white, can draw motivation or warning from the subject matter.
“We Wear The Mask,” perhaps the best poem Dunbar created, a poignant sob from the heart of anguish. The poem predicts and presents in terms of compulsive individual regret, the psychosomatic investigation of the fact of blackness, with a penetrating insight into the reality of the black man’s plight in America.
“Racial Fire in the Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar” in A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Jay Martin. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Jay Martin.
Alexander, Eleanor. Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore, A History of Love and Violence among the African American Elite. New York: New York UP, 2001.
Braxton, Joanne M., ed. The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1993.
Martin, Jay and Gossie H. Hudson, eds. The Paul Laurence Dunbar Reader. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1975.
Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Kenneth Douglas, trans. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1973.