Paul Laurence Dunbar Commentary

We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
   We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
   We wear the mask!


Paul Laurence Dunbar originally published “We Wear the Mask” as part of his first published poetry collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life, in 1896. As one of the first and most famous African American poets to come of the 19th Century, Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” offers new light into the themes of many of his previous poems: life as an African American in the 19th Century.

Similar to many of Dunbar’s poems “We Wear the Mask” is a lyric poem that blends the identity of author and reader. Rather than telling a story, Dunbar has opted to use second person plural to create a shared experience between the reader and Dunbar’s persona. As opposed to telling a story through his poem, “We Wear the Mask” sets the reader up to imagine what life may be like in the 19th Century for an African American citizen in the United States. Through his style choice a line such as, “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries”, becomes all the more powerful of a contrast between physical expression and what may be emotionally felt inside.

Often Dunbar has used a more comedic formula in his lyrical poetry to maintain an appearance on the surface layer of his craft, ultimately covering the emotions anchoring  the poetry like anger and frustration. Joanne Baxter has analyzed much of Dunbar’s work finding, “The ‘we’ of the poem is the black folk collective…or perhaps the real Dunbar lifting the mask from his danced language to speak plainly and unequivocally.” Through the use of the “Mask” as a recurring theme within this poem, the question is begged of just how often and how much of Dunbar’s work is rooted in the masked persona, and how much is the true emotion of author putting away his mask.

Dunbar uses this poem as a gateway for reader’s to take a glimpse into life on the other side of the racial spectrum at time when tensions were high. There is a breaking of the molds between the real world and the poetic world that Dunbar uses to create a new lens for those reading his poems to look through. 

— Fletcher Rice

Bibliography and Further Reading Braxton, Joanne M. “On ‘We Wear the Mask.’” On “Spring and All”, Web. “Paul Laurence Dunbar.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, Web. Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, Web.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top