What does the mask symbolize in the poem "We Wear the Mask"?

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Wallace Field eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The mask symbolizes the false fronts that some people feel they must wear in order to be accepted by society. It is certainly possible that Dunbar could be referring to the mask that black people feel they must wear in white society; he is an African American who often wrote about the difficulties and struggles faced by blacks in a society where racism is not only prevalent but institutionalized.

However, nowhere in the poem does it say specifically that the person wearing the mask has to be black—though the speaker does refer to "us," suggesting that he is a member of whatever group feels that they must wear masks. This group, he says, possesses "tortured souls" and they "sing" through their pain, perhaps meaning that they keep faith that their lives will get better and that they will be able to take off the mask one day.

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The mask symbolizes how blacks must hide who they really are to navigate in white society.  Because they are viewed as stereotypes, blacks must pretend to be what white people expect them to be.  A mask hides one’s true identity. 

The first line, “We wear the mask that grins and lies, it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes” shows that they must “mask” how they really feel about their treatment in white society.  It is through one’s eyes and expression that someone can see how another person feels, but with a mask or the ability to effectively hide one’s feelings, a person survives.  W. E. B. Dubois called this “double consciousness” and wrote how in order to survive, blacks must play a role assigned to them by white society.  That role is one of subservience and submission.  Dubois and Dunbar suggest that blacks live two separate existences—one in their own communities and a different one in the white community. This dual role causes blacks to mask how they really feel, act differently than they really are, and give into ideals that oppress them. 

The poem suggests that blacks pay a price or “debt” for the color of their skin, and it is “with torn and bleeding hearts” that they live a life that doesn’t recognize their worth as a human being.

 

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