“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.