Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872 to two formerly enslaved people from Kentucky. He became one of the first influential Black poets in American literature. Published in 20 books were Paul Laurence Poetries and fiction and numerous articles, stories, and poems in magazines and newspapers.
“We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence, was written in 1895. This poem is a reaction to the experience of being black in America in the late 19th century. A period following the Civil War when life seemed to have improved for black Americans, in reality was still notable by intense racism and hardship. Dunbar compares surviving the pain of oppression to wearing a mask that hides the suffering of its wearer while presenting a more joyful face to the world. The poem itself does not specifically mention race. The message of the poem is applicable to any circumstance in which marginalized people are forced to present a brave face in order to survive in an unsympathetic, prejudiced society.
Dunbar describes the manner in which Blacks hide their real emotions and outwardly remain indifferent to the cruelties they encounter as slaves or in oppression. The whites treat the African Americans badly. Therefore the proper understanding of the ‘we’ is taken to address the conditions of the African Americans.
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We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
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