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Paul Laurence Dunbar in his poem “We Wear the mask” describes the condition of the African Americans during his time. He describes the senseless and inhuman treatment of African Americans. The ‘We’ in this poem has however been misunderstood to describe humanity. This interpretation is not correct upon reading the poem against other works or poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar such as “Sympathy” and considering the context of the poem.
Analysis of “We Wear the Mask”
In this poem, Dunbar describes the manner in which Blacks hide their real emotions and outwardly remain indifferent to the cruelties they encounter as slaves or in oppression. The proper understanding of the ‘we’ is therefore taken to address the conditions of the African Americans. The whites treat the African Americans badly by the whites and therefore they choose to hide their real feelings and pretend to be contented with the treatment they are getting from the whites.
In the first stanza, the mask that Dunbar talks about is the mask that hides the real feelings and thoughts of the African Americans. In the line “why should the world be otherwise?’’ Dunbar questions why there cannot be otherwise in the conditions facing African Americans. This can be their freedom or a fair treatment where they will no longer have the need to pretend and can be able to express their real feelings. Dunbar questions the conditions further by asking the thing that the African Americans did to deserve the treatment they get from the other people who have enslaved them and further exposing them to harsh oppressive conditions.
The African Americans have devised a way of getting back at their oppressors by having a vague face and a smile on their faces that does not necessarily reflect their inner emotions and their thoughts. By doing this, their oppressors will see them as really cooperating by being the caricatures that they want them to be. It should however not be underscored that the blacks not only hid their feelings, frustrations, and anger from the whites but also from each other. This is because society never cared about their feelings.
The poem combines a desperate tone as well as optimism. The poem’s desperate tone stands out through the feelings of the African American during a period in time when the others failed to consider them as human beings. They received a slave-like treatment taken with others using them as animals for instance their masters who never cared about their emotions. Dunbar in the line ‘With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And a mouth with myriad subtleties’ portrays the suffering that was underneath but that was effectively concealed under the mask by the blacks.
Considering the fact that Dunbar’s parents were slaves, it is of great importance to see the desperation that he portrays in this poem as connected to his personal situation. While their hearts seem filled with pain and are broken, the only thing they could have thought about is how they would effectively conceal these emotions, as exposing them would not help their situations.
Optimism about the possibility of one day changing the conditions of the blacks as portrayed in this poem is portrayed in the lines, “…but let the world dream otherwise, We wear the mask!’(Connelly and Trimmer Lines 15-16) These lines give the indication that while the oppressors are convinced that there is nothing happening, the blacks are using this as a defense mechanism and in turn fooling their oppressors who are not suspicious.
The poem reveals the psychological state that African Americans were in during the time of slavery. This is with concern that the majority in the society who were their oppressors forced them into living in a state of pretense and hiding their real emotions. Beneath their smiles was a turbulent state of anger that they had no otherwise but to hide since revealing it would worsen their situations and increase their pain. The second stanza reveals the psychological movement of the poem. This is in the lines “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” (Connelly and Trimmer lines 6-10).
The African Americans suffered a good share of robbery of their sense of humanity with others forcing them to give their sweat and strength to people who never valued them as human beings. Their tears never mattered to anyone and this is what forced them to keep them of their woes as they sighed and cried in private. Others further denied their participation in humanity since all they could receive was animal-like treatment. They never enjoyed the fruits of their labor.
However, they kept their Christian faith strong and wished that one day they would see their situation change. They concealed and repressed their pains, worries, frustrations, and emotions when they got the chance to go to the church and sing. This is revealed in the lines “We sing, but oh the clay is vile, beneath our feet, and long the mile” (lines 14-15).
The real feelings, pain, frustrations, and anger of the African Americans are the central image that attracts the attention of the readers of the poem “We Wear the Mask”. This is by considering the manner in which the poet intertwines a description of the feelings with the fact that African Americans try to conceal them. Using poetic devices such as alliteration rhyme and repetition, Dunbar achieves to portray these situations.
A good example is the repetition of the line “we wear the mask” (Connelly and Trimmer Lines 1, 10, 16). This gives an emphasis on the fact that despite the fact that a person can appear happy, others ought not to take him/her to reflect the inner feelings and emotions of the person since as Dunbar suggests, it is the total opposite.
It stands out through the poem that despite there being a very tough and prejudiced time in the history of the African Americans, there lived people who portrayed a lot of courage. Dunbar, an epitome of such people and one whose parents were slaves and at a tender age of thirteen years had the courage and was brave enough to write a poem that questioned the authorities. The mask helped the oppressed conceal their emotions as a way of creating some inner peace for them.
Others including the whites could not see this as revealed in the line “It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes” (Connelly and Trimmer line 2). Since the eyes can determine inner feelings, this is not the case when one wears the mask, which shades them. Through this poem, Dunbar was able to expose the masked feelings of his people and make them known by those who oppressed them. The society was at that time still filled with racial injustices, which the writers never challenged and it was quite suicidal considering writing poetry like this.
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Connelly, Mark, and Trimmer, Joseph. Reading For English 2. Thomson and Heinle, Boston: Massachusetts, 1998.