Why do characters hide their tears in "We Wear the Mask"?

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In "We Wear the Mask," Dunbar suggests that people, specifically, in this poem, Black people, wear a mask because they do not want the world to be "over-wise" about the "tears" that are being shed underneath. The mask is to hide "tortured souls" from public view.

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In this poem, Paul Laurence Dunbar is writing specifically about the plight of Black people living in a primarily white-run society. He describes how Black people often choose to wear a mask which "grins and lies," because they do not want other people to see what lies beneath the mask.

This is an interesting stance for Dunbar to take: he seems to be suggesting that concealing the true agony of their "tortured souls" under a mask is a way for Black people to preserve their dignity. Rather than allowing it to be clear to the world that they feel oppressed by the difficulties of their existence, they choose instead to prevent the world from being "over-wise." They do not want the wider world to be able to recognize the depth of their grief, as expressed through "tears and sighs." Perhaps this would feel exploitative, or the wearers of the mask would feel ashamed if their suffering could be seen. Perhaps, too, there is a sense that the oppressors might be glad to see the level of suffering they have inflicted upon the oppressed. By wearing the mask, the oppressed people deny their oppressors the satisfaction of seeing the effect of what they do.

Critics of this poem often query why Black people or any oppressed group should feel obligated to conceal their real feelings from the world. What Dunbar is saying in this poem, however, is not that they feel obligated to conceal their feelings but that they choose to. It is one of few choices they are able to make for themselves.

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