Thursday, August 15, 2013

Paul Lawrence Dunbar - We Wear The Mask (poem & comments)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post showcases Paul Lawrence Dunbar's poem "We Wear The Mask".

The content of this post is presented for sociological, cultural, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

"Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African-American to gain national eminence as a poet. Born in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio, he was the son of ex-slaves and classmate to Orville Wright of aviation fame.

Although he lived to be only 33 years old, Dunbar was prolific, writing short stories, novels, librettos, plays, songs and essays as well as the poetry for which he became well known. He was popular with black and white readers of his day, and his works are celebrated today by scholars and school children alike.

His style encompasses two distinct voices -- the standard English of the classical poet and the evocative dialect of the turn-of-the-century black community in America. He was gifted in poetry -- the way that Mark Twain was in prose -- in using dialect to convey character."


Poetry Out Loud | Kristen Dupard | MPB

MSPublicBroadcasting, Uploaded on Apr 6, 2010

Mississippi Arts Commission's Poetry Out Loud State Finals contest was held March 11, 2010. . A documentary about the contest will air on Miss. Public Broadcasting Sunday, April 25th, at 6 pm.

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

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!

The above poem appeared in Dunbar's first professionally published volume, Lyrics of Lowly Life, in 1896 by Dodd, Mead, and Company. It also appeared in the volume Majors and Minors from the previous year." Poem Of The Week

Literary Analysis:
"Having parents who lead a past of slavery, and subjected to Apartheid himself, [Paul Lawrence] Dunbar was aware of the internal anguish and agony the blacks went through. The mask, an extended metaphor utilized here, marks a distinction between the mask and the man. Note that he says 'We wear the Mask" and not 'We are the mask.' The action is done consciously and objectively. Henry Louis Gates referred to Dunbar's dialect verse as "mask in motion".The black puts up a brave face, as he would prefer to break than bend to life's atrocities. The mask portrayed grins and lies. The mask hides the blood rushing to the cheek; and shades the eyes that most eloquently gives away one's emotions. The blacks pay a heavy debt to human astuteness submitting to the vileness of the whites. The 'We' refers to the collective consciousness of the black race. Though the mouth gives away emotions in all its subtlety ,the smile that forms the mask camouflages the 'torn and bleeding hearts." Likewise, the black plays out his preset role in the world despite the fact what lies in his heart. Again, the mask here 'lies'. A person generally lies for personal benefit. Here, however, the individual who wears the mask only suffers on account of lying."
Read my comment below about my dislike of the use of the group referents "the blacks" and "the black".

References to "We Wear The Mask" In A Review Of The 2013 movie Lee Daniel's "The Butler":

"Black Man, White House, and History

‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ Stars Forest Whitaker" By A. O. SCOTT
Published: August 15, 2013
"The genius of “The Butler” lies in the sly and self-assured way it connects public affairs to private experience. Early on, Cecil Gaines, the character loosely based on Mr. Allen, is taught that he, like every other African-American who wants to survive in a white-dominated world, must have two faces. This practical advice is an echo of W. E. B. Du Bois’s idea, articulated in “The Souls of Black Folk,” of the “double consciousness” at the heart of the black experience in America. “We wear the mask that grins and lies” is how the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar bitterly summarized the duplicity imposed by post-Civil War white supremacy on its emancipated but disenfranchised victims."

Thanks to Paul Lawrence Dunbar for his cultural legacy. Thanks also to those who are quoted in this post and the publisher of the featured video.

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1 comment:

  1. Although I agree with the points made in the literary criticism quote given in this post, I really dislike that author's use of "the blacks" and "black" - as in the sentences "Dunbar was aware of the internal anguish and agony the blacks went through." And "The black puts up a brave face, as he would prefer to break than bend to life's atrocities".

    My diskike of "blacks" and "the black" has little to do with my personal perference for capitolizing the first letter in racial references, as either capitol or lower case first letters are considered to be acceptable for racial group terms such as "Black" and "White".

    I don't like "the blacks" ["the Blacks"] or "the whites" ["the Whites"] because I think it would make more sense if those terms were followed by a noun such as "Black people", "Black females" or "Black males".

    And I really don't like "the black". It's significant that such language isn't used for White people - I've never heard or read the term "the white".

    It seems to me that that singular referent with its singular pronoun lumps all Black people together as though the diverse population who are Black looks, thinks, and acts as one body. Obviously that isn't the case, has never been the case, and I can't imagine that that will ever be the case.