We Wear the Mask Characters

The main characters in "We Wear the Mask" are the mask, the speaker, the world, and Jesus Christ.

  • The mask represents the concealment of inner emotional states, whether the pain felt by Black Americans or the general suffering of the human condition.
  • The speaker uses the first-person plural to voice the collective plight of the Black American community or, alternately, the suffering and fallenness of humanity in general.
  • The world represents society at large, relative either to the Black community or to an individual.
  • Jesus Christ is the central figure of Christianity, whom Dunbar alludes to as the addressee of the cries from "our tortured souls."


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The Mask

The central motif and image of the poem is the eponymous mask. Although it is not a character per se, the mask is a key figure that animates the poem’s central conceit. The mask is a metaphor for the concealment of emotion and expression. In “We Wear the Mask,” Dunbar’s speaker voices the experience of wearing—and even wilfully adopting—this mask. 

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At one level, the mask represents the boundary between Black and White Americans during the late nineteenth century. A historical reading of the poem defines the collective “we” as Black Americans and “them” or “the world” as the rest of society. Between these two groups stands the mask, which shields the emotions and inner experiences of the former group from the latter group. The speaker laments that such a division is necessary but underscores that it is preferable to a state of exposure.

At another level, the mask is a metaphor for human duplicity and concealment in a more general sense. Despite the speaker’s varying feelings about the mask, whether those of consternation or approval, there is a suggestion that the mask’s role in human life is inevitable. In the third line, the mask is referred to as “this debt we pay to human guile,” indicating that the mask is inextricably connected to—and perhaps a product of—the human capacity for deceit and duplicity. The mask must be worn both to engage in duplicity and to protect the interior self from the untrustworthy eyes of the rest of the world.

The Speaker

The speaker of the poem is an unnamed and unidentified voice. The speaker’s use of plural pronouns suggests that their perspective encompasses a broader portion of the human experience, rather than that of a particular person. 

The speakers’ addresses can be read as directed to Black Americans. The collective “we,” then, encompasses the Black American community, and the speaker’s evolving feelings—from dismay to defiance—reflect their perspective towards racial inequality. 

The speaker’s discussion of the mask can also be framed as the “debt we pay to human guile.” The subject, then, is human duplicity and suffering, and so Dunbar’s speaker approaches the material from a collective human viewpoint.

The speaker’s tone is both formal and forthright. The diction is often erudite, but the tone is direct and expressive, operating in a tetrameter pulse that gives the poem a song-like quality. The speaker transitions between different emotions and attitudes towards the central subject. At the start, the speaker seems indignant about the presence of the mask, pointing out the “lies” and “guile” upon which its use depends. The speaker then seems resigned yet understanding, pointing out the utility of preventing the world from seeing “all our tears and sighs.” By the conclusion, the speaker seems to embrace the mask with a tone of resilience, ending the poem with an exclamatory repetition of the eponymous refrain.

The World

From a Historicist perspective, “the world” specifically represents the mainstream of American society during the later nineteenth century, which was predominantly White and which discriminated against and marginalized Black...

(The entire section contains 951 words.)

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