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 themselves. A smiling person was presumed to be contented; a singing person was deemed happy. Poet Dunbar knew that a caged bird did not sing because it was happy or...

(The entire section is 467 words.)