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We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Page history last edited by Emily Ferguson 10 years, 10 months ago

We Wear the Mask, by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)


Synopsis: This poem gives the reader insight into the world of a person who is facing racial discrimination and the psychological entrapment that is the result. The mask is a symbol of the persona that Dunbar adopted so that his true emotions were not exposed. At the beginning of the poem, the mask is a symbol of weakness, as it is used to conceal the truth. Its wearer hides behind a facade. However, towards the end of the poem, the mask becomes a symbol of strength, as Dunbar presents the hope he had that his people would be relieved from their pain, just as the wearer of the mask is relieved from hiding their feelings when it is removed. The poem is a genuine heart-felt cry that brings a realisation to those who a ignorant of the racial discrimination that has occurred for many generations before Dunbar, and many since as well.


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[1].


The metaphor "the wear the mask" compares the 'mask' to false emotional facades Black Americans use to avoid provoking their oppressor.

Grins and lies highlights the false portrayal of happiness within the oppressed.

Cheeks reveal emotions, and allude to crying and embarrassment. This shows the withdrawal or expressing human emotion.

"The debt we pay to human guile" reminds the reader that it is them who is punished for societies wrong doing. Tone implies that despite having to suffer, it is worth paying the price in order to survive.

torn and bleeding hearts- religious allusion/emotional suffering

Why should the world be overwise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see thus, while

We wear the mask.


In this stanza, Dunbar questions why his oppressors should be able to see his true emotions, so that they will have more to scorn him about. He thinks that it surely is not fair that the people who make him hate himself should not be gifted the satisfaction of seeing him cry or express pain or anger in any way. It is Dunbar's opinion that they should only see the "the mask".

The line "we wear the mask" is an imperative. Dunbar is saying to himself and to his people that they will persevere with the facades so as not to give their wrong-doers any more undeserved power over them than they already do. Dunbar is advising his people to protect themselves with this shield.

The mask become a symbol of strength in the African American community, because it is a form of protection. Towards the end of the poem, the mask moves from something that hides the emotion, to being something that forces the oppressors out. With the mask in place, there is no way that they can see what their scorn and discrimination is doing to Dunbar and his people. It becomes a force to prevent them being hurt any longer.

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!


This stanza is more powerful. It gives the reader hope that was not evident in the first and second stanzas. In this stanza, it seems Dunbar knows that while he will not live to see the changes that will take place for African Americans, it will happen one day. He says that although "long the mile", they will eventually reach their destination. Dunbar uses this stanza to bring hope to the reader so that they will perservere in their own struggles and hardships. However, Dunbar does appreciate that the journey to equality will not be pleasant, yet the result will be somewhat more so.


Note: Poem in it's entirety is written in iambic tetrameter, except for lines 9 and 15, which both state "We wear the mask".

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,eyes, over-wise, sights, cries, arise,  otherwise, guile, smile, while, vile, mile.


Sites about the poem:





-http://www.studyworld.com/newsite/ReportEssay/Literature/Poem%5CWe_Wear_The_Mask-391149.htm - parts of this are blocked on school computers because of forums etc. 

Comments (1)

Emily Ferguson said

at 10:12 pm on Oct 13, 2009

Ms Amos can you please fix it so that the words aren't cut off. I don't know why it has changed. Wasn't like this when I worked on it before.

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