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On "We Wear the Mask"


 Gossie H. Hudson

The Poem "We Wear the Mask" may reveal why he so often chose to write of the black man as a happy-go-lucky creature of the plantation:

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.

From "The Crowded Years: Paul Laurence Dunbar in History" 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.


Peter Revell

Almost withou exception, Dunbar’s poems on black themes treat their subjects objectively. The formal diction of many of them demands this. They are written from within black experience but that experience is presented in such a way that the reader, black or white, can draw inspiration or admonition from the subject matter. The one outstanding exception to this generalization is "We Wear The Mask," arguably the finest poem Dunbar produced, a moving cry from the heart of suffering. The poem anticipates, and presents in terms of passionate personal regret, the psychological analysis of the fact of blackness in Frantz Fanon's Peau Noire, Masques Blancs, with a penetrating insight into the reality of the black man's plight in America:

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 mouth with myriad subtleties.

The poem is also an apologia for all that his own and succeeding generations would condemn in his work, for the grin of minstrelsy and the lie of the plantation tradition that Dunbar felt himself bound to adopt as part of the "myriad subtleties" required to find a voice and to be heard. The "subtleties" lead us to expect that honest feelings and judgments, when they occur, will be obliquely presented and may be difficult to apprehend, a point of view that many critics of Dunbar have not taken into account. It should be noted that the poem itself is "masked," its link to the black race, though obvious enough, not being openly stated. Yet in this one poem Dunbar left aside the falsity of dialect and the didacticism of his serious poems on black subjects and spoke from the heart.

From Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979. Copyright 1979 by G.K. Hall & Co.


James A. Emanuel

[T]he poem that most often moves readers of the 1970s to credit him with racial fire: 'We Wear the Mask." Significantly an early poem, it is spoken by black people and for black people. Too well known to demand full quotation here, it nevertheless has features that should be mentioned. In the opening lines, for example—"We wear the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes"--Dunbar is careful to show that the mask is grinning, not the black man. Although the poet's use of the word "lies" is probably simple, it might not be. If the mask is lying to the wearer, the anguish of the black man shown in "Vagrants" is brought into play. If the mask is lying to white people, the psychology later explored by Ralph Ellison's Dr. Bledsoe and the grandfather and the black physician in Invisible Man enters the poem. The hiding of cheeks and eyes is the concealment of those features that reveal tears and that give quality to smiles. To be blinded to these parts of a person's countenance is to be blinded to his special humanity--which Langston Hughes considered artfully in writing his well-known poem "Minstrel Man." Skipping to the end of the stanza, where Dunbar says that black people "mouth with myriad subtleties," one notes the precise usage of the verb "mouth," which intensifies the mask theme by suggesting pretense, affectation, grimacing, and distortion of one's genuine features. In attributing to these actions "myriad subtleties," Dunbar indirectly commends the imaginative creativity that black people have been forced either to waste or to narrow because of the vagaries of white racism.

The wealth of implication in only three lines of this poem indicates what a thorough examination of it ought to yield. It must suffice here to make two more observations. By indicating in the second stanza that the world would be "overwise" in sympathetically enumerating the miseries of black people, Dunbar recognizes that individuals risk their psychological equilibrium in immersing themselves too long or too deeply in the catastrophes of others. In short, they know too much for their own good. And when that unwanted knowledge brings guilt, real or assumed, for the almost irremediable ills of victimized millions, the wisdom of sympathetic involvement diminishes. Although Dunbar questions the prudence of such commitment, he sees the trap that white bigots have set for themselves: they continue dreaming. Let them dream, concludes the poet, knowing that dreamers have only two destinies: they either die in their sleep or they wake up. And when these wake up, they will face what William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe foresaw in mystical terms as the destruction of the mind.

From "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.


Joanne M. Braxton

Recent attempts by Henry Louis Gates and others to define the Dunbar canon have included a reconsideration of Dunbar's dialect verse as "mask in motion"; Dunbar often used humor as a mask, set in motion by dialect, to conceal his angriest messages. "We Wear the Mask," one of Dunbar's most famous poems, has been read and reread by critics. I examine it here not only for what it shows of Dunbar's racial and aesthetic sensibility but for the way in which--potentially, at least--it unlocks the dialect poems.

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our checks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

The "we" of the poem is the black folk collective, the speaker a Dunbar persona, or perhaps the real Dunbar lifting the mask from his danced language to speak plainly and unequivocally for just a moment about the double nature of the black experience. To put this another way, he draws aside the veil of the seventh son to give the reader second sight, if only briefly, into the inner circle of the black community and that other truth so often concealed behind Dunbar's comic drama, his witty lyricism, and his use of irony. 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, however, evincing briefly a consummate mastery of all the false "debts" that separate him from authentic wholeness. The mask is then replaced.

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.

In the third verse, the race cries and even sings out to Christ in pain, but "the world dream[s] otherwise," unaware of the black man's struggle for equality in the world and for peace within. Martin and Hudson argue that "Dunbar was persuaded that the world was an affair of masks, that he could reveal himself only by the way he concealed himself, that the truths of his being were masked." In this way, they argue, Dunbar anticipated Robert Frost and W B. Yeats, even though "he did not confront the nineteenth-century sensibility with the twentieth-century condition as they did."

For Dunbar the masked language of black dialect was part and parcel of the larger American experience. Fascinated by the representation of regional language generally, Dunbar experimented with German-American, Irish-American, and Midwestern dialects.

from The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Joanne M. Braxton. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. Copyright 1993 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.


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