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"We Wear the Mask"

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jennifer lawrence

on 12 March 2014

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Transcript of "We Wear the Mask"

"We Wear the Mask"
by: Paul Laurence Dunbar

"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!
Poem Summary
The poem talks about how people wear "masks" that show other people lies that hide our personality. We hide who we really are in fear of what others will think of us. We only let the world see the person that we want the world to think we are, not who we actually are. When we have a feeling that we are ashamed of, we hide behind a “mask” and put forth our fake self. Although we have difficulties in our lives, we put on a face that makes it seem as if everything is okay.
People wear a mask to change their personality to an ideal person by trying to suppress their feelings, confidence, and difficulties.

“With torn and bleeding hearts we smile”(“We Wear the Mask” 4).

“Why should the world be over-wise, / In counting all our tear and sighs” (“We Wear the Mask” 6-7).

“We sing, but oh they clay is vile / Beneath our feet, and long the mile / But let the world dream otherwise” (“We Wear the Mask” 12-14).

Author Biography
born in Dayton, Ohio on June 27, 1872
his parents passed on many stories of slavery to him which inspired his work
his father died when he was 12 and he was raised by his sister Matilda
he did not have enough money to attend college out of high school so he got a job as an elevator operator
during this time, he wrote many short stories
he became the most prominent African American poet in the United States when his career began
in 1892, Orville Wright encouraged him to publish
Oak and Ivy
his first collection of poems
in 1895, his second collection of poems was published called
Majors and Minors
in 1898, he married Alice Ruth Moore who was also a writer and poet
they were divorced in 1902 due to Alice's family's opinions
in 1902, he became sick and was a depressed alcoholic so he travel to New York
he continued to write until he died in Dayton, Ohio on February 9, 1906
The American Dream
Dunbar’s idea of the American dream is that everyone can obtain a sense of confidence in themselves and overcome their insecurities. Unfortunately, people change for society and “wear the mask that grins and lies” (“We Wear the Mask” 1). Paul Laurence Dunbar, being an African American man and poet during this difficult time, was able to recognize the faults of humanity and took it upon himself to try and change that. For example, when the family of his wife, Alice, did not support their marriage he did not change who he was for them, but moved on with his life and looked for something better. However, later in his life he became depressed because he did not believe he was pleasing enough to others. He allowed the opinions of others to control him and the rest of his life. While Paul Laurence Dunbar did not completely live out the full idea of his American Dream he began the idea of confidence and individuality that is still continuing today.
Theme, Message, and Purpose
Diction and Tone
The poem portrays a concerned tone that focuses on and contains diction that stresses the importance of individuality and diversity.

“This debt we pay to human guile” (“We Wear the Mask” 3).
the word choice “debt” shows a concern for what the slaves may owe to the rest of the world

"And a mouth with myriad subtleties" (“We Wear the Mask” 5).
a myriad is a great number of persons or things, which could represent the great amount of faces, words, and emotions that the slaves had to put forth in order to get through the day.

“With torn and bleeding hearts we smile” (“We Wear the Mask” 4).
the word choice “torn and bleeding hearts” is gory and puts emphasis on Dunbar’s concern of the difficult times that the slaves had gone through while the white people carried on with their normal lives

Literary Techniques

“Why should the world be over-wise, / In counting all our tears and sighs?” (“We Wear the Mask” 6-7).
rhetorical question

“We wear the mask” (“We Wear the Mask” 1, 9, 15).

“We sing, but oh the clay is vile, / Beneath our feet, and long the mile (“We Wear the Mask” 12-13).

“We smile, but O great Christ our cries” (“We Wear the Mask” 10).

the mask is a symbol for weakness and fear

Rhyme scheme:

These connect to the theme of being an individual
used the symbols and techniques to get his point across that people are not embracing who they are
repetition puts an emphasis on the line and makes the reader think

Carson, Warren J. "Paul Laurence Dunbar."
Magill’S Survey Of American Literature, Revised Edition
(2006): 1-4.
Literary Reference Center.
Web. 6 Mar. 2014.

Dunbar, Paul L. "We Wear the Mask."
Poetry Foundation.
Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2014.
Dunbar could be making connections to slavery and reflecting on the past. He could be relating this to the African Americans, who for so long had to wear a “mask” over who they really were because of slavery. It could also represent the white people who realized that slavery was wrong but wore a “mask” in fear of being persecuted for their thoughts. Dunbar is trying to place an importance of being oneself and embracing individuality.
Discussion Questions
1. What is an example from the poem where Dunbar breaks the ‘fourth wall’?

2. What could the allusion to Christ in line 10 say about religion?

3. Why do we as humans try to suppress our feelings, confidence, and difficulties by wearing a mask?

4. What is the meaning of “the debt to human guile” in line 3 (“We Wear the Mask”).
Full transcript