Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“We Wear the Mask” is an often-anthologized poem that shows Dunbar at his best in his standard English poems. In this fifteen-line poem, he points specifically to the immense suffering of black people and the necessity of painting on a happy face as a survival tactic. In so doing, Dunbar challenges the plantation tradition, of which he had become a well-known participant. In short, he emphasizes that slaves, while they may have appeared happy and docile, were in reality paradigms of suffering and strength. This could have applied as well to the suffering that Dunbar no doubt observed during his own lifetime, certainly one of the harshest periods in history for African Americans in the United States.
Technically, the poem shows Dunbar as a mature and expert craftsman. It is written for the most part in strict iambic tetrameter lines with a repetitive rhyme pattern, but Dunbar interrupts this regular rhythm in the last lines of the second and third stanzas to deliver the jolting sobering statement, “We wear the mask.” “We Wear the Mask” is perhaps the finest example of Dunbar’s employment of masking as a theme. He would continue to use masking as both theme and technique throughout his writing career.