Masters of Disguise
People everyday are wearing masks left and right, just not the kind of mask one might think of. Masks are used not only as physical objects but also to hide one’s inner feelings. For instance, one may be asked how they are doing and reply that everything is fine. All the while, things could be going terrible with that one person they just do not want to share their emotions. It is not an uncommon idea, and it never has been. In Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem We Wear the Mask, he argues from experience that slaves were hiding their pain and suffering with a mask of contentment, which blinded the whites to the harm they were inflicting on the slaves.
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In the first two lines of Dunbar’s poem he does not directly state that he is talking about slavery. Until one reads the line, “The debt we pay to human guile” (Line 3, pg. 963) which he is referencing back to the struggle that slaves had. The ‘debt’ that Dunbar writes about here is not literal debt; rather he is talking about how the owners of the slaves did not care about them. They only cared about what the slaves did for them. ‘Human guile” is the trickery of the slave owners. This line in the poem is very important because it describes the relationship between the two types of people. The owners who cared only for themselves and their own well being, while the slaves who worked for everything but for their own accord. In lines 4&5, “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, and mouth with myriad subtleties” in the first part of this Dunbar takes notice that even though the present time is hard and troubling, that there is going to be light at the end of the tunnel. Finally the last line of the stanza, line 5 says “And mouth with myriad subtleties” which means that the smiles they put on is only a façade for pain and hurt. In the first stanza Dunbar describes the mask that the slaves were wearing and the reasons for doing so.
As Paul Laurence Dunbar continues his poem, his thoughts and emotions only seem to deepen for African-American slaves. He moves away from just talking about the whites to talking about the world. “Why should the world be overwise, In counting all our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us, while We wear the Mask.” (Lines 6-9, pg 964) In the first part of this Dunbar is asking why the world wants to know about the slaves troubles. He seems to think the world is viewing them as African-American’s instead of just individual people. He says that the world should only see what the slaves want them to see which is why they will ‘wear the mask’. He wants people to see them as equal, not seen as slaves and whites. This is a very realistic idea, wanting everyone to be equal and there to be no need to wear a mask. Dunbar can only hope that there will one day be just that.
The third verse, the slaves seem to cry out to Christ for help. It might even seem that to call on Christ would be one place they did not feel the need to wear a mask. “We smile, but O great Christ, our cries To thee from tortured souls arise.” (Lines 10&11, pg 964). They have to have this disguise from how they are really feeling, and any person would admit that it is hard to keep all your emotions inside only to oneself. To be able to cry out to Christ unmasked was very beneficial. When having to have a mask from the rest of the world, to be able to be completely honest and truthful with one person is a very relieving experience.
When discussing the topic of racism, and the issues that it raises one has to be careful how to interpret the concept. A perfect example of that would be in Dunbar’s line 12&13 when he writes, “We sing, but...