The late 19th Century heralded an unprecedented wave of oppression for the Black Americans and thus they had to come up with ways of countering it, albeit silently. They could not voice their concerns honestly or without fear, and thus they had to mask their feelings and pretend that they were all right. In the poem, We wear the mask, Paul Dunbar explores how the black community in the United States survived the oppression that it faced in the late 19th century and this paper explores these issues.
The Poem We wear the mask by Paul Dunbar
The poem is a classical piece of the hurt and anguish that black Americans experienced towards the start of the 20th century. However, Lawrence does not discuss the issue of oppression with emotions; on the contrary, he steps back to give the survival techniques that the victims used as they waited patiently for their emancipation. The poem opens with a proclamation that the victims put on masks and even though they appear to be smiling, the grinning is a lie.
At the time, the best that the victims could do was to tolerate the subjugation and pretend that nothing wrong or inhuman was happening. However, after highlighting the masks that the black Americans wore, the poet goes further to note that all the smiles were fake disguises of untold pain. The politeness that defined these individuals was phony because deep down, immeasurable pain was killing them from the inside, but they had to wear a mask as a survival strategy.
The black Americans would not let the oppressor see their weakness by frowning and appearing weak from the outside. Therefore, even with lacerated and bleeding hearts, they managed to smile. The poet posits, “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile” (Dunbar 123). The smile would break the oppressors because they thought that by victimizing the black Americans they would break their spirits.
However, the victims were strong and they could afford a smile in the midst of all the storms, which were occasioned by reasons beyond their control as the skin of their color or place of origin. If only they could change these things, they could have done it long ago, but now that they could not, they devised a survival mechanism, viz. smiling their problems away.
The back Americans understood a core principle that while the oppressor can control the external environment, the internal atmosphere is a personal responsibility. Therefore, in a bid to feed and fuel their spirits, they cried to their maker. Dunbar notes, “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries to thee from tortured souls arise” (123). Their comfort could only come from their maker, and the oppressor could not take this aspect away.
The worst mistake that the oppressed can commit is to show weakness in the eyes of the oppressor. Conventionally, oppressors seek to belittle the oppressed and make them think less of themselves as unworthy individuals. This goal can only be achieved when the oppressed falls into the trap of portraying their weaknesses.
The black Americans of the late 19th Century United States understood this principle. Dunbar notes, “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” (123). They even afforded to sing as a survival mechanism. Ultimately, they managed to fool the oppressor into believing or ‘dreaming’ that all was well. They wore the mask, and it worked perfectly to counter the oppression.
Dunbar, P. “We wear the mask.” Writing Today. Eds. Richard Johnson-Sheehan and Charles Paine. London: Longman, 2012. 123. Print.