We wear the mask

The poem We wear the mask, written by Paul Laurence Dunbar, is a poem that is still subject of debate. What is this mask, that Dunbar speaks of?

Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

About Paul Laurence Dunbar

The American poet and writer Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on June 27 1872 in Dayton (Ohio). His parents where slaves in Kentucky, before the Civil War broke out.

At the age of six, Dunbar wrote his first poem. His first public appearence he made when he was only nine years old. This was recital of one of his poems. If it was up to his mother, he would start at the African Methodist Episcopal Church, that was recently founded as the first, independent afro-American church.

Dunbar went to school in Dayton and one of his classmates was Orville Wright. The two of them became friends. Around that time, he was then sixteen, his work was published for the first time. This was in a local newspaper. Just like many of his poems, he wrote in a dialect. But he would later also write in English.

Unfortunately, at the time Dunbar was 33 and there wasn’t any cure for the disease tuberculosis. He died at a too young age.

About the poem

This poem has been point of discussion for many years. It is a referrence to the suffering the afro-American community had experienced over hundred of years. The suffering wasn’t over, when slavery was abolished. This is the mask, that this poet refers to.

It is also possible, that Dunbar wanted to show the entire world, that we all hide behind a mask at one time. This is done, to hide emotions and true feelings.

We wear the mask

We wear the mask

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.

Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
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!

— Paul Laurence Dunbar