The Poem “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
“We Wear the Mask” was composed in 1895 by Paul Laurence Dunbar – one of the first African-American writers who attained national prominence. The poem itself is devoted to the lifestyle of African-Americans of that time. Despite the abolishment of slavery in 1865, racism remained an issue in interracial communication since the memories were still fresh from both sides of the conflict. In this context, the poem focuses on showing the feelings of the oppressed people. How they deliberately chose to hide their genuine emotions so their oppressors could not anyhow capitalize on their suffering. To express that author uses different literary devices, such as metaphor, imagery, and repetition.
A metaphor is a figurative usage of a particular word to show its similarity or likeness with something else. The mask mentioned so many times in the poem thus resembles a fake personality that oppressed people learned to use to hide their true selves. The hypocrisy of this personality can be seen in the first line which states: “We wear the mask that grins and lies” (Dunbar line 1). The simultaneous usage of verbs implies that the smile is not genuine, which is supported by a smile “With torn and bleeding hearts” (Dunbar line 4). In the third line, a reader can see the reason behind this ambivalence: “This debt we pay to human guile” (Dunbar line 3). It becomes plain that others’ attitudes created the mask – the need to hide emotions despite the suffering.
To invoke a feeling of empathy, the author uses imagery, which is a device that calls upon readers’ senses. The fourth line, “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,” makes the reader imagine a labored smile (Dunbar line 4). Other examples, such as “tears and sighs,” the “cries” of “tortured souls,” or “clay is vile Beneath our feet,” only fixate and deepen the feeling of suffering those people had to walk through (Dunbar lines 7, 10, 11, 12, 13). It is essential to mention that author uses the pronoun “we” and its derivatives in his poem. In doing so, he represents rather a group of people, not a single individual.
Repetition is a device that implies the intentional usage of a word or phrase several times. In the example of “We Wear the Mask,” its title became a refrain used to highlight the ambiguity of oppressed people’s current state. The poem has three verses, and the refrain is present in each one. It is placed almost symmetrically – the refrain appears at the first verse’s beginning and the second and the third’s end. Moreover, there is also a progressive gradation with each consequent usage. The first one is introducing an idea with an explanation as its follow-up. The second is a sentence’s conclusion, which states the deliberate choice. The third one is an exclamation, independent and proud in its entirety. The author does not want readers to forget about the feeling in the same fashion the people felt during those times.
In “We Wear the Mask,” Dunbar showcases people’s hardships who had to fake their emotions to survive the ubiquitous racism. Firstly, he uses the mask as a metaphor for the hypocritical behavior that they had to adopt. Secondly, the author uses imagery to share his true feelings with the readers, letting to see through the mask and understand the misery behind it. Lastly, he uses repetition to introduce, state, and exclaim the attitude toward racism and those guilty of it. Despite the poem being filled with painful emotions, there is also pride in those lines. It indicates no surrender in the struggle, which breeds hope for a better future.
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “We Wear the Mask.” Poetry Foundation.