What is 'We Wear the Mask' about by Paul Laurence Dunbar?


Quick Answer

"We Wear the Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar delineates the suffering of black people in America. It is widely regarded as one of his finest poems on their plight in the United States. The poem also expresses condemnation for the metaphorical happy mask black people are expected to wear.

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Full Answer

The first stanza of the poem is as follows:

"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."

The poem's first line, "We wear the mask that grins and lies," explains that it is the mask smiling, not the people. The wearing of a mask also signifies that the wearers do not feel comfortable showing their true faces. This collectively adopted mask not only covers the wearers' faces, it is also hiding their true emotions. It is "grinning and lying" to appease those people outside the black community.

"We" refers to the collective awareness of black people throughout America. "With torn and bleeding hearts we smile" signifies that although black people are smiling outwardly, internally they are suffering. Some commentators, such as Peter Revell and Joanne M. Braxton, argue that the poem itself is a mask because Dunbar never expresses that "we" refers to black people.

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