What is the mask symbolic of in Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "We Wear the Mask"?

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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As was mentioned in the previous post, the mask symbolizes false appearances that cleverly hide inner turmoil. Throughout the poem, Dunbar describes how persecuted African Americans smile and grin to mask their "tortured souls." Their friendly, happy disposition hides their true feelings of despair, which allows them to function throughout a prejudiced society without displeasing others. Smiling and grinning was essentially a social survival skill that helped African Americans avoid drawing negative attention to themselves. The mask is an important element that can also symbolize protection. A smiling person is viewed as docile and content. African Americans used pleasant facial expressions to protect them in a hostile society. White people were less likely to bother, question, or view African Americans with contempt if they appeared to be happy. Dunbar's poem vividly examines the necessary social dissembling African Americans routinely practiced in order conceal their true feelings in a prejudiced society. 

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luannw eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The mask in the poem refers to people hiding their true feelings behind a false expression.  Specifically, he is referring to the cheerful face that so many blacks felt necessary to wear in front of white people.  Inside, they felt the pain imposed upon them from their treatment by white people in the early post Civil War years.  He indicates, in the third stanza, that they (the blacks) allow the world to believe that they are content but inside they are not.  His words imply that blacks wear the mask of false contentment by choice because they know that their lives are made easier by wearing it.

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melissa1106 | Student

We wear the mask describes how many people do not show their true emotions and hide behind fake smiles or faces. Many people hide what they feel behind a mask and do not let others know how they feel. In his poem specifically he talks about how African Americans in early days had to wear masks because they were not treated well by society and they were not happy with their lives.

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