“We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar was first published in Dunbar’s collection Majors and Minors. The poem is an expression of anguish of the “mask” that black people are forced to wear in their interactions with the world. The speaker uses the collective pronoun “we,” and because of Dunbar’s background and the themes of his other writings, it can be assumed that the “we” in this poem is black Americans in the post–Civil War United States.
In the first stanza, the speaker describes the mask African Americans wear as one of forced smiles: it “grins and lies” despite what they might truly be feeling. They owe it to “human guile” for being able to suppress their emotions in this way. Though they suffer on the inside, their masks present smiling faces; they “mouth with myriad subtleties,” not able to openly protest or otherwise express their pain.
In the second stanza, the speaker rhetorically asks why the world should be “over-wise” in taking into account the tears and suffering of black people. Instead of letting the world see their struggles, they must only let the world see them when they are wearing their masks.
In the final stanza, the speaker describes more fully the agony that is concealed by the “smile” of the mask. While they smile, the speaker and African Americans like him are praying to Christ with “tortured souls.” They sing, but the path they walk is “vile” and “long.” Despite their intense suffering, they allow the world to “dream otherwise” and continue to wear their masks.
“We Wear the Mask” is an often-anthologized poem that shows Dunbar at his best in his standard English poems. In this fifteen-line poem, he points specifically to the immense suffering of black people and the necessity of painting on a happy face as a survival tactic. In...
(The entire section is 470 words.)