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!
Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” communicates a human condition that many people find relatable: a sense of “putting up a front” and hiding one’s true personality from others. This poem is relevant in African American literature, connecting to W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of “double-consciousness” and or “two-ness” in that there is a difference between one’s real identity and the one that outsiders perceive. Like the plight of the narrator of James Walden Johnson’s “Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” African Americans of Dunbar’s time had to assume a perspective of white society, while downplaying or hiding their heritage, in order to prosper.
As in many great poems, “We Wear the Mask” works on many different levels of interpretation: not only does “wearing the mask” deal with issues of race, but it is also concerned with anyone who has hidden behind a façade for fear that they wouldn’t be accepted by society otherwise. In fact, because the idea of hiding one's true self is so universal, this poem makes it possible for readers who otherwise might not think about issues of race to understand the problems of racism and the quest to embrace one's racial identity.