“We Wear the Mask” by Paul L. Dunbar was published in 1896. His parents were both slaves. His father escaped and served in the Union army during the Civil War. His family reunited after the war. The impact of his parents’ lives on Dunbar offered him material for his beautiful lyric poems, usually about the oppression of black Americans.
This poem speaks to the black people who were forced to hide their annoyance and hurt with a mask of happiness and gratification. This is the theme of the poem. Dunbar was still living in a time when racial prejudice was rampant, certainly throughout the south. During Dunbar’s life time, black people were still subservient to the white man.
Black people had to conceal their true feelings. It was not safe to contradict or show sarcasm to the white person. To hide what he really felt, the black person would smile and agree with whatever foolishness that came from the white person. It was not worth it to challenge when the black man was not sure who would help or protect him.
The words mentioned in the question come from each of the stanzas.
The narrator is a black person probably the poet who is speaking for the black race.
He explains that the mask grins and lies to the white man. It hides the eyes and fakes the smiles so that the black man will not get into trouble by showing his real feelings.
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
By wearing the mask the black man with his hidden cleverness does not allow the hurt that he feels in his heart to be seen by the white man. His compliance with the white man is covered by many subtle words.
There is no reason to let the white man or the world know about the remorse and [tears] hurt. Do not let them see the black man as he really is, but only the masks of agreement and submission.
The last stanza is a prayer for help from God…
Dear God, we smile…but we cry out to you from the pain [torture] that we endure in our hearts and souls. We sing the hymns…but the road that we have to walk is dreadful and revolting to the black man. This path [vile clay] of degradation seems to go on forever.
Unfortunately, with no respite in sight, the world will see the black man like they think he is…happy, agreeable, and hidden behind the facades or masks.
What was the historical problem?
At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, there were groups like the KKK who still hated the black people. Even people who were on the side of the blacks would often turn away because they did not want to get involved when some brutality was happening.
The jobs that were offered and held by the black man were demeaning: maids, handy men, shoeshine boys, porters, cooks, wash women and ditch diggers. Nothing was equal. It would be many years before the black people could lower their masks.
To add to the idea of the mask, the poem itself is masked. It never mentions the race or the real subject of the poem. Of course, if the reader in Dunbar’s day wanted to pursue the poem, he would have noted that the poet was a black man.