What Is "We Wear the Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar About?

The poem "We Wear the Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar is about the physical and emotional oppression of African slaves in America. Dunbar, who was himself an African-American descendant of slaves, first published the poem in 1896. It is widely regarded as one of his finest poems on their plight in the United States.

The poem is a lyrical lamentation of the way in which slavery in the late 19th century was not only physical, in the form of hard labor, but emotional as well, in the form of a forced display of happiness. For slaves of the time, any show of dissatisfaction with their treatment risked brutal repercussions from white Americans. It could also be detrimental to each other's morale. Thus, slaves bore a facade of happiness at all times.

The poem opens with this image, beginning, "We wear the mask that grins and lies." The only solace for the poem's narrator lies with the assumption that God, or Christ, hears the true sadness that lies beneath their mask.

Although the poem is from the perspective of black slaves, there is no explicit reference to them. As such, the poem has a universal and timeless applicability and relevance. It has been suggested that Dunbar's avoidance of mentioning slaves explicitly was intended to make the poem itself something of a mask for the truth.