A Summary and Analysis of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s ‘We Wear the Mask’


‘We Wear the Mask’ is a poem by the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), written in 1895 and included in Dunbar’s 1896 collection Majors and Minors. In the poem, Dunbar writes about the fact that many members of a marginalised community (which can be tacitly understood to mean the Black community in this context) are forced to hide their true feelings from the wider world.

The best place to begin with an analysis of ‘We Wear the Mask’ is by summarising the poem’s content, stanza by stanza.

‘We Wear the Mask’: summary

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.

In the first stanza, Dunbar’s speaker adopts the collective first-person plural pronoun ‘we’, suggesting he is speaking on behalf of a whole community (or perhaps even all of humankind?). We wear a ‘mask’, he says: we adopt a particular persona which smiles but is, in fact, a lie, because it hides the suffering (‘torn and bleeding hearts’) behind the mask.

The mask we wear, Dunbar’s speaker tells us, also covers the true nature of our faces and it shades our eyes – obscuring our own vision, as well as others’ perception of us. This is the price we pay for humans being capable of such dishonesty and deceit. We make countless (‘myriad’) small changes to our speech and choice of words when we talk, to hide who we really are.

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.

In the poem’s shorter middle stanza, Dunbar’s speaker asks why should everyone we meet in the world have to know of all our suffering and hardship? No: instead, let them see us only when we have put on our ‘mask’ which conceals our true selves.

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!

In the poem’s final stanza, Dunbar’s speaker states that we all smile, but our cries to Jesus Christ come from tormented and suffering individuals. Although we sing, the earth is unpleasant beneath our feet as we walk, and the journey we make is long and hard.

However, let us hide these harsh realities from the world and pretend that all is well, and wear the mask which conceals these unpleasant facts from everyone.

‘We Wear the Mask’: analysis

One of the most important aspects of ‘We Wear the Mask’ and who the ‘we’ is who speaks (or is spoken for, or on behalf of, by the poem’s single speaker) is not actually mentioned in the poem itself. Although we can deduce from the poem’s content that the speaker of the poem is speaking on behalf of an oppressed or marginalised community, the identity of this community is not revealed within the text of the poem.

This poem, therefore, is an example of a literary text which perhaps cannot float entirely free of its creator (if any text truly can). And we

need to know something about the poem’s author, Paul Laurence Dunbar, to understand who the ‘we’ is in ‘We Wear the Mask’.

Dunbar was a leading black American writer at the turn of the century: this poem was written in 1895 and published the following year. Dunbar was unusual for an African-American writer at this time, in that his work appealed to many white American readers as well. It is worth remembering that it was only really with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s that black American poetry as black American poetry really began to garner more attention, so Dunbar was an early trailblazer in this regard.

Dunbar did, however, write in two very distinct modes: he composed some poems in African-American Vernacular, but in others, such as ‘We Wear the Mask’, he adopted a more traditional voice. It is largely poems written in the latter mode which helped him to attain recognition and fame among white American readers.

‘We Wear the Mask’ acknowledges the fact that many black Americans feel they have to hide their inner suffering from ‘the world’ (which we might here define as ‘the white world’), and adopt a symbolic ‘mask’ of happiness. Of course, many people talk about hiding their true feelings and ‘putting on a brave face’, and people who are unhappy often feel socially conditioned, or pressured, into acting as though everything is all right.

But for African-Americans, the suffering is different because it exists because they are black. But they must hide the unhappiness this causes them and act as if they are not negatively affected by it. Indeed, such pretending becomes like a second nature to them, to the extent that they would prefer to wear this figurative ‘mask’, in order to feed the ‘dream’ or fantasy the rest of the world has told itself.

In this regard, then, we might regard ‘We Wear the Mask’ as a poem of transition: it acknowledges the hardship endured by African Americans, but does not seek to upset the status quo by exposing and challenging it. It would not be until figures like Claude McKay and Langston Hughes in the 1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance, that such black voices would be heard – and the mask would be dropped for good.

‘We Wear the Mask’: form

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s ‘We Wear the Mask’ is an example of a rondeau, a very specific verse form which comprises three stanzas and just two different rhymes, an a rhyme and a b rhyme, along with a refrain which appears twice. In the fifteen-line version, the rhyme scheme is AABBA AABc AABAc (where the c is the line ‘We wear the mask’). Dunbar wrote several rondeaus – ‘Not They Who Soar’ is another example which also appeared in the volume Majors and Minors, alongside this poem – and the form is integral to an understanding of the poem.

But what is curious about this already tight and restrictive form is that Dunbar narrows the gap even further between his a and b rhymes: both sets of rhymes contain the long i sound, as in ‘lies’ or ‘eyes’ and ‘guile’ and ‘smile’ in the first stanza:

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.

This creates an oppressive, close effect, because we can never ‘escape’ too far from the narrow remit of these rhymes, except when we come to the repeated refrain, ‘We wear the mask’, when we are granted a sudden, but brief, release or relief from the oppressive a and b rhymes.

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