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. 

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 Americans in a variety of ways. From this perspective, “the world” is, to a large degree, the cause of “our tears and sighs,” and so the speaker’s exhortations that “We wear the mask” reflect a desire to shield the suffering of the Black community from the gaze of mainstream society.

From a New Critical perspective, “the world” can also be read as a phrase that Dunbar’s speaker uses to discuss the rest of humanity relative to a given individual’s experience. For each person, all other people are “the world.” The meaning of the phrase is thus difficult to pin down, relative as it is. The complexity of the phrase’s meaning is underscored in line eight, in which the speaker says, “Nay, let them only see us, while / We wear the mask.” The “them” in this case is “the world,” whereas “us” and “we” refers to the collective human experience of wearing the mask. Though it isn’t obvious at first, “us” and “them” both refer to all of humanity, because all humans both wear the mask and gaze upon others in turn. Thus, it can be said that Dunbar’s “us” and “them” are ways of talking about the inner and outer dimensions of human experience, respectively. As such, the poem speaks to a shared interiority, far away from “the world” of external disguises, gazes, and judgments.

Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ is less a character in “We Wear the Mask” than a key allusion. Christ is the central figure in the Christian tradition, which views Christ as a savior of humanity. While all three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—share the concept of the fall of man, Christianity differs in that many Christians also believe in the related concept of original sin. Original sin is the idea that ever since Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit of knowledge in Eden, humans have been born into a state of intrinsic sinfulness. There are differences of opinion among Christian sects as to the precise nature and meaning of original sin, but many Christians view Jesus Christ as representing humanity’s salvation from sinfulness and suffering.

In “We Wear the Mask,” the speaker invokes Jesus Christ with the phrase “O great Christ” in the tenth line. The speaker describes the cries and songs of suffering sent to Christ “from tortured souls,” who nonetheless mask their pain from the eyes of the rest of the world. This address to Christ directly reflects the Christian notions of the fall, of original sin, and of salvation through Jesus Christ.

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