In his poem “We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar uses the conceit or extended of a mask to represent the outward impressions that oppressed people convey in a hostile society. The speaker itemizes parts of the face that the metaphorical mask covers or impedes. Key images here show how the “mask … hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,” emphasizing the extent of this disguise. The speaker expands their representation of the disguise to the entire physical self, both interior and exterior, with key images of “torn and bleeding hearts.”
The bodily injury is extended to spiritual and emotional damage as the speaker mentions our “tortured souls.” The speaker joins the physical and emotional by mentioning our "smile" and “tears and sighs,” using both visual and auditory sensory impressions.
Perhaps the most significant word choices are those associated with the speaker’s voice and their intended audience or reader. Throughout the poem, with an apparent exception, the speaker uses first-person plural, repeating “we” and “us” numerous times. This collective group in which the speaker includes the audience is contrasted to “them,” or those who do not wear the disguise. Notably, the speaker does not mention race or skin color.
With “O great Christ,” the speaker shifts to second-person direct address, using the device of apostrophe. Addressing Christ adds the element of religious faith to the speaker’s struggle, but also suggests that the entire poem has been a prayer and that Christ is one of the masked “us.”