“We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar is a renowned piece of literature that has been the subject of various literary criticisms over the years. Because of the poem’s indirectness and generalized ambiguity, the interpretation of the “we” that wear the “mask” and why they do so is left unanimously undisclosed. It is up to the interpreter and the support given by the interpreter to produce a valid representation of the meaning that lies beneath the mask. One such analysis of “We Wear Peter Revell presents the Mask” on page 71 of his book Paul Laurence Dunbar, published in 1979 by G. K. Hall & Co. Unfortunately, the given argument nearly shames the profoundness of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem with its brevity and lack of sufficient support.
In Revell’s short and weak interpretation of Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” he suggests that the non-black reader can’t draw inspiration or admonition from the subject matter and was written from within a black experience exclusively for a black audience. However, this analysis can be viewed as primarily invalid because, as Revell makes this claim, he fails to provide solid evidence from the text that would fully booster his assumption. Instead, he merely pulls an entire stanza from the poem to illustrate his point without referencing specific words or phrases that would elucidate his argument.
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Suppose Revell was to have supplied more fully the evidence of Dunbar’s other poetry of the time, showing how it objectively displayed a black theme and straightforwardly addressed the injustices of slavery. A similarity could have been drawn between the two, and his claim would be more understandable. However, Revell says that “We Wear the Mask” is the “one outstanding exception” to the generalized themes presented in Dunbar’s poetry of that time, depleting any possibility of congruity between slavery and the inspiration for “We Wear the Mask.” Since he does this, he further weakens his argument that “We Wear the Mask” is directed toward a black audience exclusively. And because of Dunbar’s ambiguity to whom the poem’s primary audience is, it causes one to question Revell’s claim; and, additionally, the purpose of Dunbar’s poem. Was it direct to blacks wearing this “mask” to hide their “hearts of suffering,” as Revell suggests, or could it instead be that Dunbar was attempting to adhere to all of humanity, saying that each person, no matter their race, wears a mask?
The contents of Dunbar’s poem would support the latter. “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar is a poem directed toward the entire human race that addresses the issue of our human tendency to hide behind a “mask” that conceals our true emotions and selves. Dunbar opens his poem with “We wear the mask” to draw in any reader, not just a targeted race. It would appear contradictory for Dunbar to use the universal term “we” while at the same time excluding everyone but blacks because even though he grew up in poverty, he was born in a time when slavery had been abolished and discrimination, though still present, was much less severe. Dunbar even excelled in a school where he was the only black student. He was continually recognized for his wit and intelligence by his white classmates and teachers, who found his nature quite amiable (Brawley 8). Therefore, Dunbar’s poem seems unfitting to purposefully exclude and discriminate against other races by saying “we” and only referring to blacks.
One could argue that Dunbar’s approach to saying “we” do not necessarily infer that he would be excluding other races in discriminatory terms. However, one would have to see it this way after recognizing in the third stanza Dunbar’s religious reference to Christ and the “clay” that is “vile.” With the proximity of “Christ” and “clay,” one can assume that the clay refers to the raw material with which God made man and that the vileness of the clay refers to the original sin placed upon man after Adam and Eve’s fall into temptation. In that context, the religious idea that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ combined with “we” would lead one to believe that Dunbar’s “we” applies to all children of God or all people. If Dunbar were purposefully referring to blacks alone, that would mean he believed only black people were deserving of God’s saving grace. That, however, could not be the case because God is clearly revered in this poem when the people of the poem look to God with “our cries to thee from tortured souls arise.”
After establishing that everyone wears this mask that Dunbar personifies, it can become rather unsettling for the reader since Dunbar outlines the many feats that this “mask” can perform. The “mask” is a master of hiding the wearers’ emotions, for it “hides our cheeks” and “shades our eyes” while it deceptively “grins and lies.” With Dunbar’s descriptive diction and arrangement of words, he draws the reader into believing that the mask is a dreadful entity that prevents anyone from becoming and showing who they truly are. Even when one has a “torn and bleeding heart,” they continue to “smile” because society has placed on all humanity the expectation to please others and not burden them with personal trials and concerns. Instead, one should only let the world see them “while we wear the mask.”
The question then presents itself as to why one should hide all feelings and emotions from society. Herman Melville can summarize the answer as he points out in his short story Bartleby that, “Happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay, but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none.” Similarly, Dunbar is trying to point out that within a society, people allow themselves to hide behind their own masks and be fooled by the masks of others. As long as it seems that everyone is joyful and carefree, then the responsibility to help one another diminishes, and one is left only to think and have the worry about the self. An example of this can be seen in the misconception people had of slavery; as long as blacks were considered “property” and not human, incapable of having emotions or feelings, then it was legally acceptable to treat them as such. It wasn’t until the “mask” of slavery was uncovered that people became aware of the injustices and despicable treatment that certain people in the United States placed on blacks in the past.
And it wasn’t until many years afterward that this incongruity with respect for black human life was seen by the majority of people for what it truly was, as ignorant and unfair. Dunbar claims that society allows all different forms of “masks” to serve as excuses for leading lives of self-fulfillment and self-sufficiency, so one can justifiably ignore the needs of those around them, and slavery was one such “mask” that profoundly affected Dunbar personally. Revell failed to see the possibility that “We Wear the Mask” could represent anything but the turmoil the black slaves endured because of Dunbar’s disposition as a descendent of slaves. However, the interpretation that this poem speaks to all people is supported more fully through the text due to Dunbar’s use of the universal “we” in coercion with religious reference. All people wear this “mask,” and until one figures out the most appropriate way to take it off, “the world dream otherwise,” and all will continue to fool and be fooled by the world’s countless masks.
- Revell, Peter. Paul Laurence Dunbar. United States of America: G.K. Hall & Co., 1979
- Brawly, Benjamin. Paul Laurence Dunbar Poet of his People. New York: The University of North Carolina Press, 1936.