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The Oppression of African Americans

Though they “wear the mask” that feigns a smile, the African Americans in the post–Civil War United States that Dunbar writes of face racism, segregation, and discrimination in their daily lives. These struggles are agony to them: their hearts are “torn and bleeding,” and they are plagued with “tears and sighs.” Though they appear to be joyful on the outside, their souls are “tortured” in a racist and segregated society. Dunbar describes the path of their lives as “long” and “vile,” but the white world remains ignorant of and ignores their suffering. 

Veiled Emotions

The “mask” Dunbar writes of in this poem is one that is always smiling—and constantly lying. It conceals the “cheeks” and “eyes,” two parts of the face that generally express emotion, so that the wearers’ true emotions are not visible. 

In the post–Civil War United States that Dunbar writes from, black people have been freed from slavery but are expected to appear joyful: appearing otherwise would undoubtedly anger and provoke many racist people around them who expect them to accept a place in society as second-class citizens. In order to not arouse the ire of these people, African Americans are forced to put on an appearance of joy, despite their inward agonies. Thus, they don the “mask” that Dunbar describes to veil their true emotions and “sing” as if joyful.

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Dunbar was born in Ohio, a “free” state, after the conclusion of the American Civil War. Thus, he was never legally enslaved; however, both his parents had been. The young poet heard plenty of information about the lives of enslaved people from his parents and others who had lived through slavery. Many of his poems deal directly with such experiences. This particular poem deals more specifically with continuing racism, which persisted in overt forms long after the abolition of legal slavery. The author himself endured it while attempting to gain employment befitting his background as president of his high school senior class, editor of the school paper, and a member of the literary society. Some would-be employers told him frankly that his race was the only reason they would not hire him. Therefore, he worked as an elevator boy and wrote poems and stories when he found the time. He learned the value of smiling politely and not doing or saying anything that might displease people who could make his life even more miserable than it already was.

This routine of getting along by pretending to go along provides the thematic basis of “We Wear the Mask.” This is not simply dissembling; it is a social survival skill that African Americans developed to avoid drawing unfavorable attention to...

(The entire section is 699 words.)