Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” is a lyric poem in which the point of attraction, the mask, represents the oppression and sadness held by African Americans in the late 19th century, around the time of slavery. As the poem progresses, Dunbar reveals the façade of the mask, portrayed in the third stanza where the speaker states, “But let the dream otherwise” (13). The unreal character of the mask has played a significant role over the life of African Americans, whom pretend to put on a smile when they feel sad internally. This ocassion, according to Dunbar, is the “debt we pay to human guile," meaning that their sadness is related to them deceiving others. Unlike his other poems, with its prevalent use of black dialect, Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” acts as “an apologia (or justification) for the minstrel quality of some of his dialect poems” (Desmet, Hart and Miller 466). Through the utilization of iambic tetrameter, end rhyme, sound devices and figurative language, the speaker expresses the hidden pain and suffering African Americans possessed, as they were “tortured souls” behind their masks (10).
The poem’s meter, iambic tetrameter, stands for the speaker’s heartfelt attitude regarding the sorrow that blacks kept away from whites, and in some cases, themselves. In the first stanza, the speaker proclaims that “[w]ith torn and bleeding hearts we smile, / And mouth with myriad subtleties” (4-5). During the time Dunbar published “We Wear the Mask,” blacks were treated with no dignity and were discriminated against on a constant basis. They felt they could not do anything to stop the series of unfortunate events that were happening to them, such as beatings, lynches, and no sufficient way to earn income or education. For this reason, blacks had to endure their pain by “sing[ing]” and “smil[ing], in order to prevent any serious retaliation from others (4, 9).
As the poem’s meter may interpret the perseverance of the African Americans against their struggles, Dunbar’s use of rhyme similarly unveils the effect of wearing the mask. Within the poem’s rhyme scheme of aabbc aabd aabbad, the narrator uses masculine rhyming words, such as “lies,” “eyes,” “guile” and “smile” in the first stanza (1-4). The purpose of the monosyllabic rhyming words is to associate itself with the feelings of remorse, describing the feelings of the speaker and his companions.
While the rhythmic pattern of the poem displays feelings of sadness, the speaker’s diction, on the contrary, produces binary oppositions of the feelings of happiness and words associating to concealment that differs from the oppression the poems puts forth. The words “smile,” “myriad subtleties” and “sing” all portray something bliss and content (4-5, 11). The feeling of jubilation in the case of the speaker’s situation can be thought of as the feeling of the African Americans once they put on their mask while outside their homes. On the other hand, the...