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African Americans in the Post–Civil War United States

This poem is written using a collective voice—the speaker uses the pronoun “we.” From context and from Dunbar’s background, it is evident that the group the speaker represents is African Americans, specifically black people in the United States at the time of Dunbar’s writing. These people suffer an agonizing life in their segregated and racist society, and cry out in prayer from “tortured souls.” In order to not incur the wrath of white society, however, they are forced to “wear the mask” and pretend that they are joyful, grateful, and content with their place in society. 

Post-Civil War White Society

Dunbar refers to white society at the time of his writing as “the world,” but as it is this world that ignores the sufferings of African Americans and “dream[s] otherwise,” it can be assumed that “the world” means “the white world” in the United States. In characterizing white society as “the world,” Dunbar underlines African Americans’ segregation from that world and emphasizes the view of the time that black people were outsiders and a completely separate group. It is for white society that African Americans “wear the mask,” for they know that if they were to show their true grief, white society would be angered.