One of my favorite poems is Paul Laurence Dunbar’s We Wear the Mask. Published in 1896, the poem articulates the situation of oppressed Americans of African descent, forced to wear a mask of contentment and happiness while in the presence of White America. Contentment to serve. Contentment to suffer. Contentment to be considered not-quite-human. Contentment with the status quo. With crumbs from the “master’s” table. To do otherwise– to show pain, frustration, unhappiness–would, very likely, result in more pain, fear, and possibly death. Or, all three. To hide behind a mask was—and, in some areas, still is—safety.
I’ve taught this poem in various classes: African-American Studies, American History, and English. Because it resonated with me so strongly the first time I read it, I considered it to be a fairly easy piece, especially when teaching senior high school students or freshman college students about the Harlem Renaissance period. When the majority of my students just could not get it, I was surprised. I am still surprised.
Why does Dunbar’s poem ring true for me? I am not African American. I am a solidly white, middle class female. I belong to no minority group who is suffering or has suffered extreme oppression within the last 50 years—unless one counts the oppression of women. Even then, that oppression has never really affected me, personally. Or, at least, I haven’t felt it overly much. And, though I am married to a man who does belong to a minority group, I was not married to him when I was first exposed to Dunbar’s poetry.
I feel– I’ve always felt– that the poem speaks to me because I’ve always worn a mask. I’ve tried to accept, I’ve tried to believe. I’ve tried to be what people expected me to be. What I expected myself to be. At home, at school, in college, in church. Around strangers, around friends. Around family. I’ve tried not to argue, not to speak, to remain silent. To not make waves. I’ve acquiesced, joined, accepted. I’ve smiled, laughed, prayed. I’ve rebelled quietly. And, sometimes noisily. Rebellion which, however impulsive and dangerous, at least released some of the steam building up behind the mask. Because I knew that to do otherwise, to fully remove the mask, to leave it off, would result in expulsion. Separation from my safety net of belief, of family, of friends. Of security. So, I only took off my mask when I was alone. Or with the few who accepted me without it. The few I could trust. Because most of them, too, wore masks.
Then, beginning in my early 40’s, I tried letting others outside my small group of fellow mask-wearers see me without the mask. Little by little, I tested the waters. Bit by bit, I let it slip. There were times I would retreat behind it completely. There were times I didn’t care about the consequences and briefly showed my real face. Sometimes, only part of my face. But, my real face frightened most of those people. It angered them. It worried them. It disappointed them. It saddened and frustrated them. So, up it went again.
I recently took off that mask. Left it off. Put it away. Oh, I haven’t destroyed it. Yet. I still check on it from time to time. It is disintegrating bit by bit. The paint is fading, the plaster is crumbling. Some of the remnants are still on me—bits and pieces of mask dust. But, now, when I try to put it on, when my fears make me want to again retreat behind it, it doesn’t fit. Removing it has resulted in some of what I feared. Oh, yes, it has. But, I no longer seek safety in others. Because I’m finding it in myself.
|We Wear the Mask|
|by Paul Laurence Dunbar|
|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 overwise,
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!