Study Guide Prepared by Michael
of Work and Date of Publication
Wear the Mask" is a lyric poem about oppressed
black Americans forced to hide their pain and frustration behind a façade
of happiness and contentment. Dunbar published the poem in 1896 in Lyrics
of Lowly Life (Dodd, Mead, and Company).
in Black American Writing
was believed to be the first black American to earn national recognition
for his writing. He gained attention after selling a published collection
of his poems to riders on the elevator he operated in a building in Dayton,
was the son of slaves, Matilda and Joshua Dunbar. His father escaped slavery
and served in the Union Army during the Civil War. The extent to which
the experiences of Dunbar's parents as slaves influenced his poetry is
uncertain, but it was probably considerable. One can imagine Dunbar as
a child listening at the fireside to stories his parents told about their
lives as slaves.
Concealed Pain and Suffering
get by in America of the late 19th Century, blacks frequently concealed
their pain, frustration, and anger from whites, as well as from one
another. For blacks to reveal publicly their true feelings about whites'
maltreatment of them would have been to risk dangerous retaliation. After
all, prejudice was official policy in Dunbar's lifetimegovernmentally
and otherwiseand whites vastly outnumbered blacks. Sometimes, blacks even
withheld their true feelings from one another, for defeat and desperation
were difficult to articulateand could impose deep anxiety upon loved ones.
So it was that many blacks wore a mask that suggested happiness and contentment
but concealed acute distress and pain.
and Social Background
1896the year of the poem's publicationantipathy toward blacks was widespread
in America. True, the Civil War had liberated blacks from slavery, and
federal laws had granted them the right to vote, the right to own property,
and so on. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitutionapproved
in the post-Civil War eragranted black Americans basic rights as citizens,
as did the Civil Rights Act of 1875. However, court and legislative decisions
later emasculated the legal protection of blacks. For example, the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled in 1896 (Plessy v. Ferguson) that it was legal to provide
"separate but equal" accommodations for passengers of Louisiana's railroads.
This ruling set a precedent that led to segregated schools, restaurants,
parks, libraries, and so on.
hate groups inflicted inhuman treatment on innocent blacks, including brutal
beatings. Lynchings of innocent blacks were not uncommon. Many so-called
"enlightened" or "liberal-minded" Americans looked the other way, including
law-enforcement officers, clergymen, politicians, and ordinary Americans.
Some churches even limited membership to whites. Because blacks had been
relegated to the lowest stratum of society, they had to attend poorly equipped
schools and settle for menial jobs as porters, ditch-diggers, servants,
shoeshine boys, and so on. Dunbar, a brilliant student in high school,
worked as an elevator operator before his writing earned him elevated status.
Hatred of blacks continued in the 20th Century. The Ku Klux Klan, which
disbanded in the early 1870's, reformed in 1915 and attracted more than
4 million members nationwide by the mid-1920s.
against blacks in America remains strong today in spite of major advances
in favor of blacks. Consequently, Dunbar's poem remains relevant. Schools
throughout America continue to include it in curriculums.
All the lines in the poem
except Lines 9 and 15 are in iambic tetrameter.
In this metric pattern, a line has four pairs of unstressed and stressed
syllables, for a total eight syllables. The following presentation of Stanza
1 illustrates the pattern:
3, Line 5 ("iad"): You may have noticed that "iad" in Line 5
actually contains two syllables instead of one. However, Dunbar apparently
turned "iad" into one syllable by eliding the "i" and thereby changing
the the pronunciation of myriad from meer e id to
Figures of Speech
the poem expresses Dunbar's deep feelings as an oppressed black, it also
expresses a paradox. On the one hand, it hides its central issue: Not even
once does it mention blacks or racial prejudice. In other words, the poem
itself wears a mask. On the other hand, it openly parades Dunbar's feelings
as a frustrated black across the page. In other words, it doffs all pretense
and imposture. Gone is the mask. What we have, then, is a poem that conceals
everything and reveals everything at one and the same time. However, if
the reader views the narrator/speaker as a kind of universal voice (raceless,
ageless, etc.) rather than a specific man (Dunbar), then the paradox does
not obtain. In the latter case, the general language could apply to anyone
of any race who hides his or her feelings to get by in the world. For additional
information, see Universality, below.
Repetition of consonant sounds,
alliteration, occurs throughout the poem. In the following lines, the alliterating
consonants are highlighted:
the mask that grins and lies,
our cheeks and shades our eyes,
debt we pay to human
torn and bleeding hearts we
should the world be over-wise,
all our tears and sighs?
let them only see us, while
controlling figure of speech in the poem is a metaphor, expressed in the
first line, then enlarged and extended in the rest of the poem. The metaphor
compares mask of Line 1 to the false emotional façades blacks
use to avoid provoking their oppressors.
Lines 1 and 2 of Stanza 3
present an apostrophe, a figure of speech that directly addresses an absent
person or entity.
We smile, but, O
great Christ, our cries
thee from tortured souls arise.
Dunbar avoids specifically mentioning blacks and their suffering, the poem
could stand as a lament on behalf of all people forced to wear a "mask"the
girl who hides her pregnancy from her parents, the boy who defensively
humors an abusive parent, the soldier under fire who writes home that all
is well when all is not well. One may fairly argue that the poem is about
every human being. Who, after all, has not worn a mask on occasion to conceal
hurt, frustration, disappointment?
Wear the Mask
By Paul Laurence
We wear the mask
that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and
shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human
With torn and bleeding hearts
with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears
Nay, let them only see us,while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ,
To thee from tortured souls
We sing, but oh the clay
Beneath our feet, and long
But let the world dream
We wear the mask!
In this poem, a metaphor for the psychological façade that conceals
the true feelings of the black mask wearer. Although the mask grins, the
face beneath the mask may display desperation or disappointment. In the
dramas of ancient Greece, actors wore masks to reveal to the audience the
emotions of the characters they were portraying.
. . . subtleties: Mouth here is a verb meaning speak
or talk. Myriad subtleties refers to the deft wordplay and behavior
blacks resorted to in order to avoid offending whites and provoking retaliation.
eyes, guile, etc.: Dunbar uses the long i sound at the
end of every line, except the last lines of each stanza, to create rhyme
and rhythm. Note that companion words at the end of lines include the following:
lies (1), eyes (2), over-wise
(6), sights (7), cries (10), arise (11), otherwise (14).
guile (3), smile (4), while
(8), vile (12), mile (13)..