Saturday, June 27, 2009

Paul Lawrence Dunbar--"We Wear the Mask"

The following information is from the Wikipedia entry about Paul Lawrence Dunbar:

Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 – February 9, 1906) was a seminal American poet of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dunbar gained national recognition for his 1896 Lyrics of a Lowly Life, one poem in the collection _Ode to Ethiopia_. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Paul Laurence Dunbar on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.

Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio to parents who had escaped from slavery; his father was a veteran of the American Civil War, having served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment. His parents instilled in him a love of learning and history. He was a student at an all-white high school, Dayton Central High School, and he participated actively as a student. During high school, he was both the editor of the school newspaper and class president, as well as the president of the school literary society. Dunbar had also started the first African-American newsletter in Dayton.

He wrote his first poem at age 6 and gave his first public recital at age 9. Dunbar's first published work came in a newspaper put out by his high school friends Wilbur and Orville Wright, who owned a printing plant. The Wright Brothers later invested in the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper aimed at the black community, edited and published by Dunbar.

This is one of the most powerful poems I have ever read. It has stayed with me for several decades now.

We Wear the Mask

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 otherwise,
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!
- Paul Laurence Dunbar -


  1. One of my challenges when including this poem in my Introduction to Literature courses is getting students to see beyond the notion that an African-American poet is writing only about the experiences that go with being a subservient minority in a predominantly white (and ostensibly racially insensitive) 19th century America; when students (readers) see the poem as a suggestion that everyone wears a mask and can face similar challenges, then they are able to expand their own visions of Dunbar's vision.

  2. I had the same problem. I got a brilliant idea, but unfortunately I retired before I had a chance to try it out. I was thinking of simply giving them the poem as a handout with no bio information about Dunbar. And then, after discussion about the poem, I would tell them that he was black and see what changes in perception that would bring about.