"We Wear The Mask" Essay

1277 words - 6 pages

Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote “We Wear the Mask” in 1896, which was during a time of civil uneasiness in the United States. Considering the time period and the race of the author it would be easy to assume that this poem is strictly referring to the lives of African Americans during this time, but when looking deeper into the poem it is clear that Dunbar is addressing the entire human race. He uses the metaphor of the mask to represent the façade that so many people obtain in order to portray a happy and normal lifestyle. The narrator of the poem is Dunbar himself as he explains the mask worn not just by African Americans but by the entire human race.
Before looking at the poem itself it is important to have some background information on the author and the time period in which this poem was written. Paul Laurence Dunbar is an African American man whose parents were former slaves. He grew up in the late 1800s which was a time of civil uneasiness in the United States. The progress of blacks into society had grown rapidly until 1896, when the separate but equal laws were passed causing a slight decline in the progress made in civil equality. “We Wear the Mask” was written during this time of decline.
The first stanza of the poem is talking about the way that people put on a happy face and hide their true emotions from the rest of the world. The first line states “We wear the mask that grins and lies” which immediately put the image of a clown mask in my mind. People in our world play out this act of constant happiness; much like the permanent smile painted on a clown’s face, when in reality life is extremely difficult. The second line goes on to say “it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.” This is referring to the two facial features that give off the most emotion. It is said that the eyes can be considered windows into a person’s soul because it is hard to lie when eye to eye with another person. The cheeks are also known to show a lot of emotions such as embarrassment or anger, so in order to keep up this idea of constant happiness we must put on a mask to hide our eyes and our cheeks. Next it says “This debt we pay to human guile”, which I interpreted as saying that once we start pretending to be something we are not we get caught up in a never ending cycle of lies, and it is almost as if we become indebted to our own deception. This line is also important because Dunbar makes a point to say human guile, relating the poem to the entire human race not just to blacks. The fourth line states “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.” This line expresses that people put on a smiling face even when they are wounded and broken on the inside. It is important to recognize the emphasis the poet put on the heart by describing it as torn and bleeding. This is an extremely graphic expression that is used to point out the excruciating internal pain that some people go through without ever expressing their pain externally. The last line in the first stanza...

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