Recent attempts by Henry Louis Gates and others to define the Dunbar canon have included a reconsideration of Dunbar's dialect verse as "mask in motion"; Dunbar often used humor as a mask, set in motion by dialect, to conceal his angriest messages. "We Wear the Mask," one of Dunbar's most famous poems, has been read and reread by critics. I examine it here not only for what it shows of Dunbar's racial and aesthetic sensibility but for the way in which--potentially, at least--it unlocks the dialect poems.
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our checks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
The "we" of the poem is the black folk collective, the speaker a Dunbar persona, or perhaps the real Dunbar lifting the mask from his danced language to speak plainly and unequivocally for just a moment about the double nature of the black experience. To put this another way, he draws aside the veil of the seventh son to give the reader second sight, if only briefly, into the inner circle of the black community and that other truth so often concealed behind Dunbar's comic drama, his witty lyricism, and his use of irony. In life, the mask covers the face and eyes, and the "torn and bleeding hearts" and the "myriad subtleties" that are mouthed are deliberately indirect and misleading; the speaker of this poem steps out from behind the mask, however, evincing briefly a consummate mastery of all the false "debts" that separate him from authentic wholeness. The mask is then replaced.
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.
In the third verse, the race cries and even sings out to Christ in pain, but "the world dream[s] otherwise," unaware of the black man's struggle for equality in the world and for peace within. Martin and Hudson argue that "Dunbar was persuaded that the world was an affair of masks, that he could reveal himself only by the way he concealed himself, that the truths of his being were masked." In this way, they argue, Dunbar anticipated Robert Frost and W B. Yeats, even though "he did not confront the nineteenth-century sensibility with the twentieth-century condition as they did."
For Dunbar the masked language of black dialect was part and parcel of the larger American experience. Fascinated by the representation of regional language generally, Dunbar experimented with German-American, Irish-American, and Midwestern dialects.
From The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Joanne M. Braxton. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.