Literature Poetry Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) wrote his 1913 poem "We Wear the Mask" in open defiance of the commonly accepted fallacy of his day that African-Americans were happy in the subservient roles they were forced to assume in the face of white racism. Dunbar, through the use of irony, through inverting the positive connotations of smiling, and through the religious rhetorical tropes of exclamation and crying out to God, conveys the cognitive dissonance between the false face African-Americans were forced to portray to earn a living in white society.

The title of Dunbar's and first lines of the poem may at first suggest a mask that an actor or a performer wears. "We wear the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our checks and shades our eyes." (Lines 1-2) However, the next lines of the poem suggest that the nature of the mask that is worn is far more complex. The poem strikes a contrast between the exposed face and the bleeding hearts within the smiling individuals. Note how Dunbar does not speak only for himself in the poem, but for his entire race of people. He states authoritatively that he is revealing to whites what not only what he feels but all African-Americans feel, that there is a huge division between what they experience as Black people and what White people observe Black people experiencing. In the words of W.E.B. DuBois, the views of Whites of Blacks are inevitably "colored" by the former group of individuals' "wishes" or "fears." (DuBois 134) Because Whites wish Blacks to be happy in their station they see them as such.

Blacks are forced to smile in reality as well as in the imagination of Whites, however, simply to live in economic self-sufficiency in a society that denies them basic civil rights. This myth of the 'happy darky' in slavery and under Jim Crow was perpetuated by minstrel shows and later by novels such as Gone with the Wind. In the second stanza, Dunbar states "Why should the world be over-wise, / In counting all our tears and sigh? / Nay, let them only see us, while / We wear the mask." (Lines 6-9) Dunbar again employs irony, for really he is saying that African-Americans, the 'we' he is speaking for, should have the right to speak out about their distress, so that people do understand what they are…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

DuBois, W.E.B. "Of the Sons of Master and Man" from The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin Classics, 1989.

Dunbar, Paul. "We Wear the Mask." 1913.

King, Martin Luther. Why We Can't Wait. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.

Harlem Renaissance. Web Site accessed July 11, 2002.

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