Who is the "we" in "We Wear the Mask"?  It seems that it is referring to slaves, but what part of the text actually confirms to whom Dunbar is referring?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The last stanza seems to suggest that the speakers are slaves; however, the lines can also be applicable African-Americans of Dunbar's time, during the Jim Crow era.

It is true that slaves were forced to mask their feelings whenever in the presence of whites, and Dunbar learned much of slavery from his parents, who were former slaves. But, during the time of the Jim Crow Laws, which were written at the end of Reconstruction in 1877, African-Americans were still forced to "wear the mask." They were prohibited from using the same facilities as whites, having different entrances and many of their own places for sitting or for business dealings, etc. In other words, they lived in a separate world within America. Yet they were expected to always be polite to whites, and to appear as though content with their status in society. Therefore, African-Americans had to present a facade of contentment to white society, not unlike the "mask" that many a slave had to wear lest he/she be punished. This condition is described in the metaphoric line, "This debt we pay to human guile." 

However, this compliance to a forced appearance of contentment in order to avoid humiliation, this wearing of the "mask," Dunbar urges, can also allow the African-Americans to dissemble their feelings and, thus, turn the condition to their advantage:

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
    We wear the mask.

This verse, then, adds a note of defiance to the humiliation of social dissembling which the African-Americans have endured through the years of slavery and the years of Jim Crow.

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We Wear the Mask

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