Compare and contrast the poetic elements of Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask" and Langston Hughes's "Harlem."

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One primary level of similarity between both Hughes' poem and Dunbar's poem is that they speak for those who have no voice.  This becomes a critical element in understanding their point of view.  Through their poems, Dunbar and Hughes are suggesting that the voices of those who are silenced are narratives that must be shared, understood, valued, and appreciated in order for the democratic experiment called "America" to live up to its promises and possibilities.  A primary level of divergence between both would be the implications of each poem.  Dunbar's poem shows a level of struggle that is almost accepted within the African- American experience.  It does not glorify it, but rather accepts it as an indispensable part of being a person of color in America.  The consequence of this is struggle and unfairness is understood as part of this condition.  In Hughes' poem and through the posing of questions, the implication is that should this unfairness and denial of voice persist, the results could be quite catastrophic regarding American society.  The closing lines of each poem highlights the notion of suffering in silence giving way to active defiance.  In Dunbar's work, the concluding thought of "But let the world dream otherwise/ We wear the mask" is less actively defiant than Hughes powerfully poignant question, "Or does it explode?"

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