What does the mask symbolize and do in the poem "We Wear the Mask"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Paul Laurence Dunbar's celebrated poem "We Wear the Mask," Dunbar examines and depicts the plight of oppressed African Americans in the post–Civil War United States, struggling to conceal their true emotions behind a disguise of happiness and contentment. In the first stanza of the poem, the narrator describes African Americans wearing a metaphorical mask that "grins and lies" and conceals their true emotions. While the oppressed, discriminated African Americans smile, their hearts bleed and souls ache. In the next stanza, the narrator asks a rhetorical question concerning what use it would be for the rest of society to recognize the suffering of black Americans when it is easier for white society to view them with their masks on.

In the final stanza, the narrator continues to elaborate on the genuine feelings of African Americans, who publicly smile and sing while they hold back the tears and cries arising from their tortured souls. 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. This disguise not only conceals their negative feelings but pleases white society, which desires to dismiss and reject the genuine feelings of oppressed African Americans. The mask also protects African Americans from the wrath of racist white citizens, who desire to punish any unhappy, dissatisfied black citizen. Essentially, the mask allows African Americans to safely navigate a prejudiced society without drawing negative attention to themselves while concealing their most difficult emotions.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial