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 and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear a 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 our world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask!

-Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1896

I read this poem today in my poetry class and as we were analyzing the poem, a deep and intellectual discussion erupted. Unlike many 19th century poems, I find this poem to still be highly relevant. Although initially I interpreted this poem to undeniably represent racial discrimination especially as the poet, himself, is African American, I took the poem to show the emotional agony faced by African Americans that seemed to be overlooked by others. In fear of admitting to weakness, they put on a mask and avoid showing pain and instead put on a smile. After a further look, I realized this poem can apply to a multitude of situations. There are so many times when we wear masks.  We not only hide from weakness but also we hide from expressing inexperience or difference in opinion. We hide our pasts, our scars, and our flaws. We act differently in different settings or around different people. One of my classmates proposed an interesting question. He said “How can you be sure that your true self isn’t just another mask?” This question is what sparked my interest in writing this post. At first it left the class dumbfounded. We all sat there and thought about it for a minute. I think it is a question we have all thought of before though. In the midst of all of our different selves, how do we know which one is our defining self? I, personally, struggle with this fear excessively. I fear that I don’t actually know who I am, or who I would be without the influence of anyone else. My professor responded to the question by saying that we all have a multiplicity of selves, with not one being more authentic than the other. Experiences and external influences shape who we are and our different actions in different settings can be explained by the way our minds work, our personalities and adaptability. Another student suggested that we apply different filters at different times in life but underneath it, we’re still the same person. I thought this interestingly explained the different versions of ourselves.

I especially like the line of the poem “…But let the world dream otherwise.,”. I think it accurately depicts the societal view of ignoring pain and the negative connotation around weakness. Somehow, even though we all have weakness, it is viewed as wrong to admit to it.What a funny thing, because I am attracted to imperfection and weakness. What I truly desire to know about people is their rough spots and how they overcame them. We spend a lot of time with sandpaper when the whole world has rough edges. My initial response is to say to remove the masks! However, I am not naive enough to not understand that this is a natural human response; I think we will always hide parts of ourselves from the world.




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