#54: “We Wear the Mask” (Paul Laurence Dunbar)

“We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar is one of the shorter poems in the Countdown, a spare poem that one might call “inevitable.” It’s a very famous lyric, one that seems always to have been with us – which is not to say that there was anything automatic or unconscious about its composition, only that the best poems often seem like they were directly inspired by a Muse.

Who wears the mask? Dunbar was a great tragic writer, whose novels and poems write about the cruel period when a generation of African-Americans experienced the imposition of Jim-Crow-type segregation in America after the brief hope of Reconstruction. One assumes that the “we” of the poem are African-Americans in general. W.E.B. DuBois famously talked about the “double-consciousness” incumbent on black Americans:

the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,–a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.

We’ve also seen Langston Hughes write, if in a slightly more sanguine way, about the phenomenon of being seen by white Americans in a role or persona. (“Persona,” in Latin, means “mask.”)

But note that, unlike Hughes or DuBois, Dunbar’s speaker doesn’t use any identifying terms. We don’t learn his ethnicity. We don’t learn his sex. We don’t learn about him as an individual, in fact, because the poem is written in a generalized first-person plural.

“We,” in the poem, are a group that is hidden. On the outside, “we” grin, smile, and “mouth” what the world expects of us. The alternative is to have the world “count” all “our” grievances. The implication is that the world will be mighty unsympathetic, and any expression of pathos is going to be taken as a sign of weakness.

The poem is forged in very specific historical experience. It lives on because it describes a situation that still echoes through African-American experience, and tragically, repeats itself for other groups of people in other places and eras.


29 responses to “#54: “We Wear the Mask” (Paul Laurence Dunbar)

  1. I truly liked this short poem. I think that anyone can relate to it in one way or another. To wear a mask is to pretend that for a period of time you can be someone or somthing else. Everyone at one point or another regarless the race has fallen victim to some kind of embarrasment or greif. For the best of others and oneself, we must put on a mask to hide out true feelings. Our pain, sadness, and anything else we wouldn’t want the world to see. But in this particualr poem, it talks about cruelity, hardship and pain. It talks about how even when they are tired and in pain they must continue smiling. They can’t lose everything. The clay under their barefeet while walking long distances isn’t something to smile about. It seems that smileing and making the best of things is the only thing you can do. We must wear a mask to smile for us when we no longer can.

    • Monterrey82 True: Wearing a mask can mean a lot of things and we seem to smile regardless of hardships. As victims of all types of mischief and consequential trauma, we wear masks to keep the secrets from seeping out to the public. Similarities in backgrounds seem to help us relate to others including the author of this poem. Sometimes we live life with problems that are getting resolved everyday. I appreciate the poem and it’s sincerity to pain. I am able to take off my mask and express myself in writing because I relate directly and emotionally to the history of this poem. Africans hide their identities for various reasons similar to Langston Hughes and his experience as the only black male in an all white classroom setting. “Dunbar believed that the smiles worn by African Americans were only a facade used to survive and get ahead, a mask used to hide their pain and resentment at being treated unfairly in the segregated and unequal context of post-Civil War America”.

  2. Everyone wears a “mask” in life. A person may be feeling sad, overwhelmed, scared, troubled, etc., yet sometimes in order to not let anyone know how they are feeling they pretend to be happy and that all is well. When that person goes home or is alone they can quit pretending that everything is fine. They don’t have to smile and laugh and be something they are not. Other people use drugs, alcohol, or sex as their “mask.” All these pretenses are just “masks” that one puts on when they either first get up or when they leave their house. People are cruel sometimes when they are quick to judge others. It is why people wear “masks.” People go to church to pray and to look to God for answers or for help, maybe even for friendship. There, everyone definitely wears “masks!” It is true that only God knows us without our masks. HE knows who and what we really are what we are feeling. That is where “We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries To Thee from tortured souls arise.” We look to God for help. At home, the “masks” come off and people are able to be themselves. Every once in a while though, the “masks” actually do help. The pretend smiles and laughter may actually help someone and in return help that person get back on the road to happiness and well being.

  3. We wear the Mask has true revelation to the pressures that we are faced with today. Some of us wear the mask of struggle, frustration and agitation. “Beneath our feet and long the mile.” We struggle because we are good and talented. We get frustrated when everything doesn’t go our way and we are agitated with the success and the pain of forced and unforced labor. We have our ups and downs silently through the spirit of living life. We have triumphed through slavery and segregation. Which means to me that all people by race have had their sufferings. We didn’t know the struggle before we were born so we are faced with the perseverance of Christ everyday. What we see and feel hides what others endure, know, and are unaware of. “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.” Just another reference to smiling through gritted teeth and kindness though enduring a troubled heart. “But let the world dream otherwise.” It means to me that you’ll say one thing meant for one way and it’s interpreted in another magical or conflicted manner by ways of an audience. In other words, what you go through in this life time will only be seen through vision of the flesh but also the spiritual self that sees through eyes guarded from the things that go unsaid. We wear the mask because we sometimes don’t get to express our true feelings for the questions of life, and the things that are misconceived because of personal biases.

  4. I found this poem quite intriguing because I have found myself thinking about how different people act and behave so differently, and associating it with masks. It’s true, each one of us wears a mask, good or bad, we do, for different things. Most if the time it’s for the one’s image. We wear masks everywhere hiding who we truly are. For example, I work at a bowling alley and used to work at in information center, I was always told that no matter how bad my day was, it doesn’t matter, I had to keep smiling.
    Everyone everywhere wears masks, we never truly know who someone is but the words, ““We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries To Thee from tortured souls arise.” Is a reminder that God knows and He’s watching. No matter how we feel and what we tell others, when we talk to God we tell him out sorrows, fears and sins.

  5. Even though Paul Lawrence Dunbat’s poem is referring to African Americans, I feel like it applies to everyone–regardless of race. A mask is used to hide or cover one’s face; and in some ways we all have worn masks–not physically. For example, when we hide our emotions or pretend to be something we’re not; it’s us covering or hiding our real selves. I agree with the contribution that was made by a student in class. She said that our masks are what leads us to situations and she used the recession as an example–people buying houses they know they can’t afford then end up going into debt or foreclosure. I think that she’s roght because these people pretend to have something they don’t don’t have and that is them being unreal. I think that the part of the poem that says: “Why should the world be over-wise, In counting all our tears and sighs?”: is referring to those who can read beyond our pretense or lies. There are some people that know when we’re not being ourselves–and these are the people that are being referred to by the speaker as “wise”. I feel like the speaker’s trying to say that we can only but for a while wear these masks; someday we’d have to take it off.

  6. “We Wear the Mask” definitely relates to all of us. This poem seemed more interesting to me than the other two we read in class simply because it was easier to read and understand and because it spoke the truth about us all. We wear masks when we don’t want others to see how we really feel about something. At times, it is better to put on a smile even though we aren’t feeling happy because we don’t want the ones that envy us to see us sad. Of course, no matter how much we try to hide our true feelings, God always knows how we feel. I have read and re-read this poem a few times, and the first time I read it I got an image in my head of the worlds’ opinion towards America. In many other countries, people carry the opinion that Americans are always putting on a “fake smile”; it is that “mask” that they’re carrying. Everywhere you go people are smiling, for no reason even when they just look at you! It is not like that in other countries (all over Europe, Africa, Australia, Russia, etc.) I know from personal experience. When I travel elsewhere, I have a feeling like people are being rude, but in reality they are just being real. Why put on a “fake” smile on your face to someone you don’t even know? This poem may be about African Americans, but I think it is about others as well. Such a short poem, but has so much emotion in it and much to wonder about.

  7. Being a mime dancer and wearing mask or painted mask the first thing we learned about was the word Hypocrite. In Greek and Roman drama the narrator would do a monologue and then put on a Mask and become an Actor in the drama. We sometimes do that in life, and in certain situations we sometimes “act” like everything is okay and to hide how we are truly feeling we put on mask after mask till the point we don’t know our real identity anymore. Then we’re faced with an identity crisis. Its so easy to identify people who aren’t being “real” with themselves because its a struggle for that person to keep up that appearance and emotion.

  8. Lol I accidentally pushed the submit button to soon but, we expose ourselves day after day, our deepest hurts, our joys, our deepest beliefs. We are a public opinion in its purest form free from fear of judgment. Why do we hide behind mask? Why are we afraid to be who we are?

  9. The poem We Wear the Mask speaks with such truth. No matter who or what we are, we have all worn the mask at sometime in our life. We all have been asked the question how are you doing and answered with wearing the mask that grins and lies. Through hurt and pain, happiness, truth, and denial the world places a mask on us they want to see. Regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender we have all been faced with similar situations that have caused us to be who we are not. Me being an African-American woman knows the many mask we have had to wear. Some we are and were forced to wear and others just to relate to and be a part of what society requires us to be. In the last stanza We smile, but oh Christ, our cries To Thee from tortured souls arise. Personally I feel this is a cry to Christ for relief from our tortured souls that keep rising. That keep rising because we are afraid of showing and knowing who we really are. We are afraid of not being accepted for who and what we are. Until we face our true self we will continue to wear the mask of the world.

  10. The other day I was listening to the Goo Goo Dolls’ song, Iris. The beginning of the chorus says, “And I don’t want the world to see me/Cause I don’t think that they’d understand…” When I heard this I thought about the poem, “We Wear the Mask.” I felt that is the main reason many of us wear a mask. We don’t want the world to see the true us, we are protecting ourselves and putting on the face that we feel others want to see. According to Dunbar, the world shouldn’t know all of our sorrows, which is why we wear the mask.

    Something else that occurred to me while we discussed this poem in class is the reference to Christ. I felt that regardless of the mask we wear, the Lord knows who we are. He knows our sorrows, our tears, and our sighs. The mask may be a way to avoid the world, but it doesn’t hide anything from Christ. Dunbar says, “But let the world dream otherwise…” and that makes me feel that the mask is deceiving. Whether we wear it for good or bad reasons, the mask does not let our true colors shine though, so it is exactly that, a mask of who we are.

  11. I think that it is very odd to me that no one in class seemed to mention the mask being worn by African Americans until now. Personally I am not sure who is supposed to be wearing this mask that “grins and lies, and hides our cheeks and shades our eyes. “ My first thought when reading this poem was the question of if those that are wearing the masks are so unhappy in doing so, then why are they? Are they being forced to wear the mask, or is it a choice because the negative outcomes of not wearing one far outweigh what they are experiencing already? Another idea was that the masked in the poem don’t want people to see who they truly are, and I think that is quite possible.

    Throughout reading this, I kept getting the image of wearing the mask as a choice, and it being related to the Christian faith. Perhaps God knows who we are behind the mask; he knows who we truly are regardless of what the world sees. The idea that Christians should share their sorrows with God, instead of the world makes sense because, “why should the world be over-wise, in counting all our tears and sighs?”

  12. Yes, anyone can relate to the poem in one way or another, because at some point in our lives we have all worn a mask. Some people wear it longer than others. Some people take their masks off for close friends and family. Some may wear a mask to church. Others may wear a mask to a bar or night club. Then, there are some people who never take their masks off for anyone at all no matter where they are at. Also, there are people who wear multiple masks: one for school, another for work, another for friends, and another for family.
    The mask I believe being talked about in this particular poem is the “Happy” mask. A mask that hides our pain and sorrows. This mask is commonly used by everyone. I believe we cover our sadness, because of fear. We fear that when people discover what makes us sad, they will use it against us. Just like a brother would do to his baby sister. When he wants to get back at her for something she’s done to upset him, he’ll hide her favorite Barbie from her. He know that not being able to find her Barbie will make her very sad and it’s the perfect way to get back at her. We also wear a mask to hid our sadness because we don’t want people to think we are weak. We like to make people think that nothing can bring us down. Why should we have to show everything we feel to everyone? God is the only one who can give us true happiness so he is the only one who needs to know our sadness.

  13. To me this poem does not single out a particular group of people because hiding our true emotions is something that everyone is guilty of at some point. It doesn’t matter how much or how little we do it, it happens and it is just the way society is. We are taught to be polite, nice, and thoughtful of other people we interact with since we were children. That is why we grow into adults continuing these patterns. If people were honest with each other about how they really feel inside there would be endless tension and conflict. We are trained to also behave this way in the work place. There are people who feel they have to act or be viewed a certain way by others to be successful. I agree with a few of the other students in our class when they say that no matter what mask we may wear, god knows who we are inside. And those of us who serve him share a relationship with him.

  14. Wow, I logged on to comment on “Ode on Melancholy”, but so many people posted on this poem, I just had to get in on it. I don’t think that this poem is referring to African-Americans specifically just because the writer is African-American. It’s human nature to put on a mask when we deal with certain people, or with people in particular. But in reality, would we know how to react to someone who didn’t wear the mask? As much as we say that we would like people to be able to be real with us, and as much as we say we would like to be able to be ourselves around others, I doubt that we would know how to handle it if it really were possible. Have you ever cried in public outside of a funeral or a sad movie? Even though it’s an honest expression of emotion, it’s horribly embarassing. And it’s worse when we’re not the person crying. When someone you don’t know very well begins crying, you just want to disappear. In my line of work, I make grown men and women cry quite often, and it never gets any more comfortable for me. Every time I see them starting to well up, I feel like turning tail and running out the door. Why? It’s not because I’m unfeeling and uncaring. I think part of it is that we are conditioned to be that way to a certain extent, and part of it is because we are biologically accustomed to being uncomfortable in the vulnerability of others. The mask that we wear hides our real selves and offers a form of protection from the outside world. As children we are taught to put up that mask in order to protect ourselves and to ensure that the world continues onward. As strange as it is to say, the mask isn’t really such a bad thing when you think about it. At least, that was what I thought when we were discussing the poem in class. It’s a means to an end, and if it means that I can protect myself when I might otherwise be at my most vulnerable, then how bad can it really be?

  15. I agree that the mask mentioned in the poem “grins and lies” to project a false image of happiness in our lives. I, like many others, am guilty of wearing the mask from time to time to hide my true emotions. We all do it. Some wear it better than others.

    The rules set by society require us to wear the mask. It is socially unacceptable for us to show all of our true emotions. Things could be going horribly wrong for us in our personal lives, but we put on the mask and smile when we go to work, and vice-versa. Our lives could be crumbling around us, but if we wear the mask no one will ever know.

  16. I think that just about everyone can relate this poem in some way or another even if it is just a little bit. Everyone today wears some type of mask, you may not think that you do but if you truly think about it you do. When you are a work you maybe more professional that is a mask, when you are with your family or friends that is different mask. So if you think about you wear a mask no matter what, but what you really need to think about is the mask that you wear does it really show who you are or does it show what you want people to see as. That is when it comes down to it do you really know that person that sits next to you?

  17. This is by far my favorite poem in the countdown so far. To me the mask isn’t an actual mask that the speaker wears but more or less a fake persona that he is wearing. I figure many people can identify with the idea of the mask in this poem, because the majority of us do put on “a mask”, we hide our emotions and the true us. I can’t tell if Hughes is actually for or against this mask, but it seems to me he is just trying to make the reader aware that there are masks, not everyone is exactlly how they appear, actually for most people there are more than what just meets the eyes.

  18. In Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” “we” refers to African Americans because that is the race Dunbar belongs to. In his poem Dunbar is observing how people of his color have had to suffer yet they do so in silence. He believes that African Americans are wearing a mask to hide their pain because they do not want the world to sympathize. Empathy and sympathy are two different things. For African Americans the clay beneath their feet is evil but no one else can empathize because no one else has to walk in their shoes. However, Dunbar urges the son of god to hear the plight of his people because they smile to put on a show for others but for Christ their suffering is plain to see.

  19. I believe that everybody can relate to this poem. There are many times when we wear the mask. We wear a mask to hide what we are going through or who we really are. We do this because we dont want people to know our true feelings and what is going on in our lives. People live their life everyday and walk around smiling even though they are hurting in the inside. When they are alone and away from their the rest of the world they have to deal with this pain and it all comes out. Some people wear a mask because they dont feel accepted with out it. They may not feel accepted to a certain group they are apart of. Only God knows what we are going through and how we truly feel. This is my favorite poem out of all the poems we have read. I like it because it is so true and everyone can relate to it.

  20. Short, sweet and to the point. This poem is one that I really like. It speaks to a part of life that is so true, yet so unnecessary. Why do “We Wear the Mask”? There is something to be said about the individual that is true to himself and others and says whats on his mind and wears his emotions on his sleeve. The problem is that most people have a problem with Truth in whatever form it is displayed. The first sentence of this poem suggests that we give people what it is that THEY want to see, regardless of how we are feeling inside or towards that particular person. We hide who we really are. The mask hides our true emotions, our happiness, our sorrows and even our joy at times.
    The poet suggests that in doing this; Wearing the Mask, we pay a debt. What is that debt? I propose that the debt is being REAL with ourselves. We can not please everyone so why do we try? As the poet stated, Christ knows how we truly feel and who we really are. He can see behind the mask, and to me HE’S the only one we need to please.

  21. To me this poem is not geared toward and specific group of people. It seems as if it is calling out to all of humanity. Everyone has worn a mask at some time in their life, some more often than others. As humans we tend to be quiet about our self troubles because we do not wish to share our burdens with others. It is not any other persons business but our own and Christ’s as the poem allude to know our business. So when we are down and have had a hard day we try not to show that and put on a smile and go on with the day and nobody is the wiser about our troubles. The poem points out that “why should the world be over-wise in counting all our tears and sighs?” To me this is just asking why place more worry on others when it’s acceptable to assume that they have their own to worry about. There is no sense in bringing more worry than necessary in the lives of others. I know personally at work, I hardly ever want to go but once I am there my forced smile greets the members as if I were truly happy they came in to complain about another thing. Situations as such are necessary because if say I were to let me true feelings show about the Country Club goers I may not have a job for much longer. Masks have become so common in our society that Americans celebrate a day out of the year devoted to putting on a mask and being something we are not – Halloween. It is just another aspect to the lives of humans that has become ordinary in everyday life that even now we do not pay attention to the “myriad subtleties” to the masks that we would be able to tell the true feelings. Honestly I believe that we do not wish to know the truth but would rather get along in life accepting the lies that the masks portrait.

  22. i enjoy the simple rhyme scheme of this poem as well as the versatile meaning within. The idea of wearing a mask i think is a universal concept of hiding behind something in order to escape criticism. While the meaning of the mask within the poem is not truly known I believe it is a poem about his religious faith. He names Jesus and states that to him the speaker’s voice cries. The speaker also speaks of “a long mile” which to me also sounds to be about his faith. The speaker is obviously in anguish over his duty to smile to be happy to have joy and that is what he hopes people see with in him and through the facade of the mask. His load is heavy and his journey full of treachery, left to wander around unselfishly. We need not fear scrutiny need only wear the mask happily

  23. In the poem “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar the poet does a remarkable job of showcasing the truths of this world. We all wear masks in one form or another every day of our lives. People don’t always get to see who you are they get to see the person you think they want to see. Our true colors are very rarely apparent. This might come across to someone that the person is being fake and this is one way to look at it. I would rather look at it as the person has class. One horrible example of this is when someone acts like a complete fool and says things to others under the assumption that it is ok because they “tell it like it is” or my favorite “they keep it real”. There is a time and place for people to say things and act certain ways, this mask that we all wear a lot of times should be kept on longer in many cases today. When this poem was written the term poem probably meant other things pertaining to the plight of African Americans. I feel it was accurate representation of that time period and how African Americans felt. However, today, we all wear masks in one shape or another and it is not necessarily a bad thing.

  24. I like this particular poem due to the truth that I find in it. Though simple it is something undoubtedly everyone of us have either done or seen. When you get around certain people you may act differently or you may notice yourself pretending. The act of being pretentious is done to make yourself seem better in some way. The whole “mask” we wear is a way for us to deal with our insecurities. The downfall of doing so is that people generally detect that you are not being genuine. I see the author as viewing the people whom wear them as suffering from an affliction of their own shortcomings.

  25. “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar is a great poem that deals with a really interesting subject. The idea that we all wear masks everyday and how we treat people and get treated is very deep. I personally think that many people are so worried about what society thinks about them, that they permanently infuse many masks onto themselves. A feeling of self pride and respect should outweigh the reason to ever have to wear a mask for anyone. Being a colored person, and having first hand experience of racism, still leads me to believe that there is no reason for anyone to stoop to that level. I know that people might say otherwise, and that people have their reasons for wearing such masks, I very strongly believe that we are all humans and all these problems in society are self inflicted. We create the stigmas and stereotypes that plague human kind. The feeling of removing all the masks and just being ones “true self” is the greatest feeling in the world, and I think everyone is entitled to that feeling. I also believe that every human should do this for the betterment of themselves and society in general!

  26. “We Wear the Mask” seems to have connected with a lot of people, and for good reason. Each of us has experienced this, each of us wearing a mask to hide our true emotions for one reason or another. I know I have at work and at home hid my true emotions, especially for the reason that Dunbar says in the second part, that “Why should the world be over-wise, In counting all our tears and sighs?” I know I’ve had my reasons for hiding it from my family or friends. The thing though is even though Dunbar’s environment would leave you to believe he is talking about African-American’s at the time, I believe his use of language and the first person plural shows that Dunbar wasn’t just talking about his people’s plight, he was talking about all of us in general, which does bring up a different point that the mask is a sort of equalizer because people of all races and classes and from all walks of life wear the mask. The biggest thing to me though is this mentality of wearing the mask; it does cause problems in our society. While we may not want to know every bad emotion that each of us has, wearing the mask can stunt us emotionally and hurt our relationships by hiding our emotions when we should be letting them out and bottling them up can lead to problems later on, both physically and mentally.

  27. “We Wear the Mask” is a great poem because everyone everywhere can relate to it. At some point in everybody’s lives, they have put on a mask for whatever reason. We always smile to hide our sadness, anger, and frustration. We make up lies to be accepted by those around us. We never want the world to see our true identities. We don’t like other people to know when we are in pain or suffering so we make them believe otherwise. I think there are very few people you interact with that actually know the real, unmasked you. People you have known long enough to know that they will not judge you for being yourself. These are the same people we are able to see unmasked. Personally I think that as long as there is discrimination of any sort, we will always wear the masks that hide our truths because we are afraid of being seen with them off.

  28. something about this poem stood out to me from the beginnig, the words that dunbar used to describe certain situations were not just run of the mill descriptives, but powerfull and assertive ones. ” we sing, but oh the clay is vile beneath our feet, and long the mile;” there are so many different ways he could have said this, that would have conveyed the same thought. i love that he used “vile” in the way he did. there is so much power behind that word. i also enjoy the general theme of the poem. it brings to the forefront the fact that everyone in some way shape or form puts forth a persona which we want others to see. instead of allowing others to see us as we are. i think us as a society could benifit greatly from using this as a guideline. would it be so bad??? wouldnt it make it easier to deal with problems if we knew that we werent the only ones out ther with them? i think life might be a little easier to manage if our problems and issues were as visable as our successes. wouldnt it be better if you knew within the first hour that the girl you just met was truly crazy, instead of having to wait it out for a coupple months to come to the same realization?? if nothing it might make relationships a litte easier.

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