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‘We Wear The Mask’ is a poem written by Paul Laurence Dunbar. It is a moving poem, an outcry against the racism that prevails in America against those who are coloured.
About the poet:
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was a notable African-American poet. He was known for beginning to write as a child. Famous works of his include ‘Sympathy’, ‘Lyrics of Lowly Life’, and ‘The Haunted Oak’.
The major theme of this poem is racism. Those who are coloured are oppressed in America and them trying to hide themselves against this thus points to this theme. Towards the end of the poem, Christianity can also be seen as a theme prevailing in the poem.
This poem is divided into three stanzas wherein the first has five lines, the second has four and the last has six. It follows the rhyme scheme ‘aabba aabc aabbac’.
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 begins with the collective pronoun ‘we’, thus showing the readers that the persona is not only talking about himself but his community which is being oppressed as a whole. He states that they wear a mask and hide behind it, portraying themselves to be happy. They hide the true expressions that decorate their face, the rage that threatens to show on being suppressed. Hiding their pain and anguish, they wear their debt for being deceitful- the mask- and smile to say things they do not mean, that do not reveal their true selves.
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.
The persona questions why it was that the society wanted to closely monitor their pain, to keep track of the anguish they suffer. Because they are adamant in doing so, the persona assertively states that they, as a community, would not let society have the pleasure of seeing what they wished to see. They would only see the mask that they wore, their protective armour.
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!
The last stanza is an appeal to God, a cry of distress rather. The persona proclaims that though they smile for others, their tortured souls are crying to God, the supreme being. Though they sing as though being happy, the ‘clay’ beneath their feet is ‘vile’, referring to the vile nature that could show out of the land they live. Their journey of life, because of this, is long and hard, filled with suffering. Yet, the persona states that the world could think otherwise, could believe that they were happy indeed for all they see is the mask these people wore.
This poem is the experience of the persona, a resident of America, on racism and oppression. It shows how those who are coloured are suppressed in subtle ways but to the world, it doesn’t show.