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“We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar is a social poem that demonstrates the hardships African Americans faced in the post–Civil War United States. The poem focuses on the metaphorical “mask” of happiness and contentment that African Americans were forced to wear in front of white society while struggling under racism and segregation. 

The three-stanza poem consists of fifteen lines—thirteen lines of eight syllables and two refrains of four syllables—and is written in iambic tetrameter. Because of the poem’s form and rhythmic, repetitive quality, “We Wear the Mask” is considered a rondeau, which is a verse form typical of medieval and Renaissance French poetry. Its rhyme scheme—aabba aabR aabbaR—is typical of the rondeau form. The poem’s musical nature and rhyme scheme are perhaps meant to reflect the tradition of slave songs in the United States, in which slaves recounted their struggles in musical form. 

Dunbar was one of several poets who wrote in the “plantation tradition,” a genre in which former slaves and children of slaves reminisced about life in the pre–Civil War South. “We Wear the Mask” stands in contrast to the plantation tradition and some of Dunbar’s other writings by focusing not on nostalgia for the antebellum South but on African Americans’ hardships. 

The life African Americans live in Dunbar’s society is one of “tears and sighs” that they hide from the white community with a “mask” of happiness. Dunbar asks rhetorically in the second stanza, “Why should the world be over-wise” by “counting all our tears and sighs?” At first, this might sound like African Americans hide their “tears and sighs” for white society’s benefit, but in actuality, this is an expression of frustration: it is deeply painful to the speaker that the world wishes to see African Americans only when their mask is on. 

While written about the African American community of Dunbar’s time, “We Wear the Mask” is relatable to anyone who has been forced to put on a smiling face and hide true feelings. In its broader context, the poem tries to make sense of societal stigmas and paradoxes and gives insight into the struggles people of any minority might endure.

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” combines salient features of verse essay and poetic meditation as it examines the need for a special kind of social dissembling in the world in which the author lived at the end of the nineteenth century. The poem presents readers with a speaker who speaks in first-person plural, as “we” and never simply “I.” This clearly indicates that the speaker should be regarded as representing a particular or special segment of society. The opening stanza of the poem indicates that the group represented by the speaker pays a “debt” to “human guile” by wearing a “mask that grins and lies.” This does not provide any indication that the speaker is not simply speaking for all human beings who have at some time engaged in pretending to be happy when they really are sad.

However, in the second stanza, the idea that the speaker is representing a particular segment of society becomes clearer when the poem indicates that “the world” need not be aware of the true feelings of the sufferers. Indeed, the speaker suggests that the world should only be allowed to “see us, while/ We wear the mask.” This suggests something beyond merely dissembling for the sake of duplicity or dishonesty.

This mask that “grins and lies” is hiding the existence of excruciating misery and suffering. The speaker says, “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries/ To thee from tortured souls arise.” There can be no doubt that these people are enduring overwhelming hardships. There is also no doubt that they are determined not to let “the world” know about the true nature of their feelings. This sets up an ironic emotional contrast between what the people are experiencing and what others...

(The entire section is 1,454 words.)