We Wear the Mask
This classic poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, We Wear the Mask, in 1896 shows the experiences of the black male and female in a racist and segregationist society. This poem has traditionally been placed in the literary historic era: realism – which showcased reality in descriptive details. On a specific note, racial realism is where the poem belongs as it showcased exactly what blacks were feeling under their collective disguise towards their oppression. Peter Revell argues that the poem serves as an apology to what Dunbar knew would be a condemnation “Of the grin of minstrelsy and the lie of the plantation tradition that Dunbar felt himself bound to adopt ‘myriad subtleties.’” James Emanuel states that the beginning of the poem, “We wear the masks, that grinds and lies/ it hides our cheeks and our eyes, “ Dunbar wants to point out that the mask itself is smiling but underneath the black man isn’t. He also states that “myriad subtleties” of blacks is an enlargement of the mask to include, “distortion of genuine features.” Michael J. Cummings asserts that blacks in the 19th century when Dunbar was writing this poem, hid the pain and anger that they had towards whites and also from each other. If blacks were to reveal their true feelings about whites’ lack of common sense to know they were ill-treating them, they would risk even more maltreatment on top of what they already had to deal with.
Sometimes, Cummings asserts, blacks would hold back their feelings of oppression as defeat was difficult to articulate and, “could impose deep anxiety amongst loved ones.” So many blacks walked around looking content but inside they were in distress.
I am arguing that “We Wear the Mask” was a poem that was a predetermined reaction to whites’ enjoyment of works that adhered to amassing stereotypes. Dunbar knew what he was doing and was acknowledging he was not alone in what he was feeling as this was an experience that African Americans encountered. After a while Dunbar got tired of living down to the stereotypes that whites imposed on him both as an involvement in minstrelsy and in dialect poetry. He knew that more black stereotypes were going to be imposed on blacks crippling them past, present and future and in order to survive under the constant strains of racism he would have to not forget who he was in the face of what whites wanted him to be. We wear the mask is admitting to oneself the coping-mechanism blacks utilize in the face of menial work, Klu Klux Klan, and the Plessy vs. Ferguson, “separate but equal” nonsense.
Dunbar was already accustomed to whites’ always telling blacks who they were and that in return would become the “mask” that blacks wear. In other words whatever whites said blacks were was in itself the mask that they’d wear to get by. We Wear the Mask was a poem in Dunbar’s collection Major and Minor that he wrote before Howell’s review of the collection which focused on only the dialect ones. I feel it necessary to examine how We Wear the Mask was already a reaction to the impending racist and racially insensitive critique of Dunbar’s poetry collection by William Howell. Concerning Dunbar’s material Howell states, “…and in his treatment of it he has been able to bring us nearer to the heart of primitive human nature in his race than anyone else has yet done.” The latter is an example of what Dunbar and other African Americans were accustomed to, whites telling blacks who they were or who they ought to be. This accustoming was what made the poem a preexisting reaction. Howell goes on to say, “Here in the artistic effect, at least, is white thinking and white feeling in a black man.” This later statement is racist because it’s implying that when a black man thinks and feels, he is white. One can assume that Dunbar’s poem was overlooked or quite frankly pushed aside. And ironically, this poem was a pre-existing reaction to ideologies such as Howell’s critique which in itself only proves what Dunbar already saw coming.
We Wear the mask was so realistic that by it being a preexisting reaction, showcased that the general attitude of white audiences to blacks no matter where the show was, was essentially the same. Whites saw black minstrel as really what blacks experienced when in fact it was just the opposite. The ways in which the poem was a preexisting reaction to impending white racism is as follows: “this debt we pay human guile” could be interpreted in different ways. It could be saying that we as blacks put up with whites ignorance to make a living and make sure there is food on the table for our families. “We” get involved with minstrelsy at the expense of our humanity and authentic African American identity. Dunbar wrote dialect poetry because that was what white readers expected “Black” poetry to consist of. But these poetry was exaggeration and sarcasm, poking fun at many whites’ predominantly false and racially stereotypical views of blacks. I am even going to go as far as stating that this was passive resistance. “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,” is saying that we as blacks use a coping mechanism to deal with the racial discrimination that we face on a daily basis by smiling and looking like we are content but inside we are pretty much dying. That line could be talking about the very dialect poetry included in the collection with a portrayal of blacks as golly, jolly and content with plantation slavery life.
Dunbar’s reply to Howell’s review is not only an example of the mask that he is talking about in the poem but a portrayal of the extent of the poem’s realism. In the reply he says, “I feel much as a poor insignificant, hopeless boy would feel to have himself knighted…my whole life has been simple, obscure and uneventful.” In this reaction one can see that this exemplifies the, “Nay let them only see us, while we wear the mask,” line of the poem. Scholar, Gene Jarrett asserts that Dunbar had mixed feelings about Howell’s review, and that sixteen days after it appeared Dunbar sent Howell a letter stating that he read the article and felt what it had done. This is an example of Dunbar wearing the very “Mask’ that he confesses he does in his poem, as with many other African Americans in the 19th century. An example of Dunbar wearing the mask only adds to the realistic vigor of the poem. Jarret adds that a year later after thanking Howells, Dunbar in what appears to be a regret of his positive and humble reaction towards Howell’s review said that there was a, “ ‘irrevocable harm in the dictum that Howell laid down regarding [my] dialect verse. (500)’ ” I want to add that this regret was rooted in Dunbar’s forethought that Howell would praise the dialect poetry as whites saw Dunbar as a “racial novelty fit to entertain the white masses not to challenge them” (Black and White), or to break down the white denominated literary marketplace. Jarrett states that scholars have argued that Dunbar’s dialect poems were actually a protest against “minstrel realism” although on the surface it seemed to be perpetrating it. One can see the resistance and a more evident protest in “We Wear the Mask.”
Black minstrelsy was not a realistic portrayal of African Americans. However, the poem “We Wear the Mask” was, as it was uprooted from Black minstrelsy in order to showcase the pained realities of African American life— what was really happening under the mask. The poem also adds a racial lens to realism. The power of the social construct of race is of vital importance in the understanding and appreciation of the poem. It also becomes more meaningful when it is read from the historically racial backdrop from whence it sprung. That way readers can relate or empathize.
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Dunbar, Lawrence. “We Wear the Mask.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed.
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“Dunbar’s Reply to Howell’s Review.” Academic Divisions. Sinclair Community College, n.d.
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Jarrett, Gene. “Entirely Black Verse From Him Would Succeed.” Nineteenth –
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William, Howell. “Rev. Of Majors and Minors by Lawrence Dunbar. Harper’s Weekly. 27 June
1896: 630-631. Print.
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