Before people start reading the poem “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, it is important to know about the poet and the time it was written to understand the context.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African-American poet and writer born in 1872 to parents who were former slaves. The years he was active as a writer were some of the most difficult times for people of color in America.
During his time, Americans were seeing a shift. While racism and slavery were considered negative by the law, the people still were equally racist. A change was declared, but it was not practiced by the people.
So in a way, while the lives of black people were supposed to get better and they were getting equal rights and opportunities, in practice people still faced rampant and blatant racism. This poem is written in that context.
Let’s look at the poem first and then at the simplification, analysis, and meaning of the poem.
We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar
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!
We put on a fake expression, an expression of fake smiles and grins This expression hides our cheeks and covers our eyes This fake smile is the price we pay for having the ability to deception A smile on faces even though our hearts are in pain We carefully use words to avoid showing our suffering. Why should the world make the effort to see behind our masks? Why should the world notice our tears and sighs? No, let them only see us after we have put on the fake smile We smile, but oh God, you can hear our cries Our cries that come from our tortured souls We sing but the road on we walk is muddy and dirty And we have to keep walking, for our struggles are not over yet But the world dreams that everything is perfect And we pretend that we are happy
Meaning of the Poem
If readers do not have any idea about the poet, they might be confused about what kind of suffering the poet is talking about. But since we know the poet, we can understand what Dunbar is talking about.
The meaning of the poem is something that still applies today; while the world may see everything is perfectly fine, it is the people who suffer who truly know what is going on. We pretend that everything is perfectly fine by putting on a “mask.”
The suffering of black people during the nineteenth century is known by everyone who has read even a little about history. But Dunbar shows the emotional and personal side of the story.
With the reforms and the work done by activists, the law started to change, offering basic human rights to colored people. But that was not the same for the mentality and the behavior of people.
Racism was out of the law, but not from society. This is what the essence of the poem is. While everyone assumed that the lives of colored people had improved, it was only they who truly knew what was going on.
Dunbar says that people have to smile and grin and pretend that everything is fine. But this fake smile just covers up their cheeks and their teary eyes. This is the price they have to pay to get the ability to lie.
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,
Dunbar says that they have to be very careful with the words they choose to speak and maintain the lie. He must comply without raising his voice. He cannot say that things are not right and people are in pain.
The second stanza is the most important stanza of the poem as it gives us the reason behind the suffering of these people.
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.
Dunbar says in a sarcastic air why should the world make the effort and look closely at what is going on? Why should they notice the racism and inequality that colored people have to face in every facet of life?
From not getting an equal opportunity in work, and in life to not getting the dignity and respect that any human being deserves, there are not many reasons behind their sighs and tears. But why should the world try to look at them?
No, it is better that they just keep looking at the made-up reality. Let them look at us while we are wearing the mast so that it is easier for them.
In the last stanza, Dunbar reveals the true face, a face that is full of distress and eyes full of tears. Dunbar takes off the mask and lets the world look at what’s beneath the smile and grin.
We smile, but oh 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 a very melancholic and touching way, Dunbar addresses Christ and not the readers for he is not looking for sympathy from people who do not care about looking deeper into the pain of these people.
He says that while we smile, we cry as our souls are tortured. Yes, they may have started getting equal rights in some places, but what about the humiliation and the disrespect?
While they sing, the road that they are walking on is vile. This line shows that the painful journey of fighting for equality and respect is not over. They must walk more and suffer more.
But let the world dream that it is a perfect one. We wear the mask to hide the nightmare that sits beneath. We choose to suffer silently.
The Essence of the Poem
The poem was written by a person who felt the discrimination all around him in society. Yes, the world has changed a lot and gotten much better, but the power and the relevance of the poem, sadly, still remain the same.
Even in this day and age, there are groups of people in almost every country who are doing the same thing Dunbar did. They are facing discrimination based on one or two aspects; color, language, heritage, religion, etc.
But why do they wear a mask? Why not reveal the mask and let the world know about the reality? That’s because no one cares about the face under the mask. They want their dream to be protected.
People did not bother to look into reality. Even if the people showed the truth, no one would actually care. Nothing would change, because the problem was with people’s mentality. That is the essence of the poem.
In a sad and twisted way, these colored people are not the ones choosing to wear the masks, but they are made to wear the mask so that other people can avoid seeing their suffering and enjoy their dream.
We’d like to end the poem with a possibility that could have been added by the poet. Perhaps he left the line as it was too obvious to understand for the people of that time.
If we took our masks off
the sound of our cries
will make them close their eyes
People did not want to hide their pain, but society did not want to see their pain.
If you liked reading about this poem, then how about taking a look at some similar poems and their analysis? Choose your next destination!