We Wear the Mask Themes

The main themes in "We Wear the Mask" are racial inequality, the cost of duplicity, the fallen nature of humanity, and inner versus outer worlds.

  • Racial inequality: The poem reflects Dunbar's exploration of the condition of Black Americans, specifically their concealment of their suffering.
  • The cost of duplicity: The poem suggests that duplicity is an inedible fact of human life whose cost is the masking of emotions.
  • The fallen nature of humanity: Dunbar draws on the Christian concept of the fall of man, the figurative source of human suffering.
  • Inner versus outer worlds: The poem delineates the painful, though necessary, division between interior feeling and outward presentation.

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Racial Inequality

Considered within the context of Dunbar’s biography, social context, and broader artistic aims, “We Wear the Mask” is a document of the Black American experience, expressing the suffering of Black Americans during the late nineteenth century. Dunbar published “We Wear the Mask” in 1895, a time when racial intolerance was prevalent throughout the United States. This was especially the case in the South, where discriminatory racist policies were upheld in the form of Jim Crow laws and where racist ideologies gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan in the tumultuous decades after the end of the Civil War. Although Dunbar was born and raised in Ohio, his poems are often set in the South, both before and after the Civil War. 

“We Wear the Mask” is an ambiguous—and somewhat abstract—poem and has no setting per se, but it can be fruitfully read against the context of the Black American experience. From this vantage point, the speaker’s use of “we” encompasses the Black community, and the eponymous mask is a metaphor for the Black Americans’ concealment of emotional pain—pain particular to the history of brutality against Black Americans, as well as the suffering of being subjected to discrimination and marginalization.

From this perspective, the poem’s dichotomy between “we” and “the world,” between “us” and “them,” refers to the Black American community and the mainstream of American society, respectively. The speaker urges “us” to conceal “our tears and sighs” from the predominantly White mainstream. Thus, the mask becomes a kind of shield against a hostile culture, and the poem’s final line—“We wear the mask!”—becomes a cry of solidarity against the forces of inequality. In the third stanza, the “long… mile” full of “vile” clay is symbolic of the long road to racial equality.

The Cost of Duplicity

In the first stanza of “We Wear the Mask,” Dunbar defines the source of the eponymous mask: “the debt we pay to human guile.” This metaphorical debt frames the mask as the result of a transaction. Because of the human capacity for duplicity, ingenuity, and guile, we must bear a great cost: masking ourselves from one another. 

At one level, duplicity and its resulting cost appear to be one and the same. After all, to deceive another is to use false appearances, to wear a mask. However, Dunbar’s analogy has a deeper suggestion. We “wear the mask” as a tool of deception, but we also wear it in order to protect ourselves from the scrutiny and guile of others. 

This defensive function of the mask is the central subject of the second stanza, which poses a rhetorical question: “Why should the world be over-wise, / In counting all our tears and sighs?” Line eight immediately answers the question with the inevitable “Nay.” The stanza concludes by affirming the role of the mask as a line of defense against the scrutiny of others: “let them only see us, while / We wear the mask.”

The third stanza underscores the idea that wearing the mask as a means of defense deepens our duplicity. Dunbar’s speaker portrays a state of collective misery, evoked by the “clay [that] is vile / Beneath our feet,” before noting that we conceal this misery from others. As the penultimate line expresses it, “But let the world dream otherwise.” 

The irony here is that this state of misery—and concealment of that misery from others—is arguably the fate of all humans. Indeed, the poem subtly suggests that we need not conceal from one another what we all suffer. But the poem also suggests that this concealment and duplicity is intractable, as the final line conveys through its exclamatory repetition of the main refrain.

The Fallen Nature of Humanity

In “We Wear the Mask,” Dunbar alludes to the biblical doctrine of the fall of man. This idea, whose foundations can be found in the Book of Genesis, states that humanity has fallen from a state of primordial innocence into a state of suffering and mortality. Dunbar connects the central motif of the mask to the theme of fallenness in two primary ways. 

First, the mask is a symptom and outcome of humanity’s fallenness. In the first stanza, Dunbar refers to the mask as “This debt we pay to human guile.” The word “guile” here evokes fallenness insofar as guile is antithetical to innocence. The logic of indebtedness is also evocative of the fall of man: in the Christian tradition, the price for Adam and Eve’s consumption of the fruit of knowledge is human suffering and mortality. Indeed, the mask is a tool whose reason for being is our fallenness and whose use further negates our innocence.

Second, the mask shields humans from the gaze of others, and within that sheltered space of interiority, the misery of our fallen state is felt and concealed. In the third and final stanza of the poem, Dunbar’s plural speaker invokes the figure of Jesus Christ through cries from “tortured souls.” Dunbar is drawing on a specifically Christian vision of the fall of man in which Christ represents humanity’s salvation from sinfulness and suffering. In the following line, the “clay… / Between our feet” can be read a metonym for Adam’s earthen origins: in the Book of Genesis, God creates Adam out of dirt. As the poem comes to a conclusion, the speaker notes that, despite humans’ private sufferings and cries for redemption, we continue to “wear the mask” when confronting the world.

Inner Versus Outer Worlds

“We Wear the Mask” dramatizes the distinction between the inner and outer dimensions of experience. The central image and motif of the poem, the eponymous mask, represents a threshold between these two worlds. The first stanza offers images that represent how the mask mediates between inner and outer worlds in false ways. The mask “hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,” thus masking the authentic expressions of the face from the perceptions of others. The masked eyes can be read in another sense: by wearing the mask, the eyes are “shade[d]” and thus the vision is weakened. The suggestion, then, is that to engage in duplicity is to be somewhat blinded to the world. The contrasting image of smiling with “torn and bleeding hearts” also underscores the great division between inner subjectivity and outer presentation.

The second and third stanzas further clarify the logic of this division. The second stanza asks, “Why should the world be over-wise, / In counting all our tears and sighs?” Here, Dunbar uses “tears and sighs” as a metonym for suffering and “the world” to represent the rest of humanity relative to the individual experiencing that suffering. For Dunbar’s speaker, the shielding of those emotions is necessary, and so, as the stanza concludes, “We wear the mask.” The third stanza conveys the same conclusion but with modified metaphors. In the realm of interiority, our “tortured souls” cry out for relief, but in the realm of external appearances, we “let the world dream otherwise.”

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