Peter Revell

Peter Revell: On "We Wear the Mask"

Almost withou exception, Dunbar’s poems on black themes treat their subjects objectively. The formal diction of many of them demands this. They are written from within black experience but that experience is presented in such a way that the reader, black or white, can draw inspiration or admonition from the subject matter. The one outstanding exception to this generalization is "We Wear The Mask," arguably the finest poem Dunbar produced, a moving cry from the heart of suffering. The poem anticipates, and presents in terms of passionate personal regret, the psychological analysis of the fact of blackness in Frantz Fanon's Peau Noire, Masques Blancs, with a penetrating insight into the reality of the black man's plight in America:

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.

The poem is also an apologia for all that his own and succeeding generations would condemn in his work, for the grin of minstrelsy and the lie of the plantation tradition that Dunbar felt himself bound to adopt as part of the "myriad subtleties" required to find a voice and to be heard. The "subtleties" lead us to expect that honest feelings and judgments, when they occur, will be obliquely presented and may be difficult to apprehend, a point of view that many critics of Dunbar have not taken into account. It should be noted that the poem itself is "masked," its link to the black race, though obvious enough, not being openly stated. Yet in this one poem Dunbar left aside the falsity of dialect and the didacticism of his serious poems on black subjects and spoke from the heart.

From Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979. Copyright © 1979 by G.K. Hall & Co.

Peter Revell: On "The Haunted Oak"

Perhaps the subtlest poem in its use of literary device, and the nearest to a poem of protest and outrage, is the comparatively late "The Haunted Oak." Dunbar again employs a traditional form borrowed from English literature. The simple stanzas, sparse rhyming, and stark and baleful language of the Border ballad, which frequently involves the description of primitive and cruel acts of murder, are well adapted to the contemporary

theme of lynching. The violent action of the Border ballad is also frequently motivated by the spell or the curse of evil influences. In Dunbar's poem the device of the tree's lamenting its unwilling part in the lynching and of the withering of the bough which had borne the victim is exactly in character with the traditional mode of the ballad.

And ever the man he rides me hard,

And never a night stays he;

For I feel his curse as a haunted bough,

On the trunk of a haunted tree.

According to Edward F. Arnold, Dunbar wrote the poem quickly after hearing the story from an old ex-slave who lived in the "Camp" on the grounds of Howard University. There can be no question that the choice of the Border ballad form, with its tone of terror and curse, was a brilliant stratagem on Dunbar's part as a means of rendering the story with the utmost power. Again, Jean Wagner asserts that Dunbar does not protest enough, but the poem works by other means than overt protest. Its invocation of supernatural powers and its tone of lamentation, rather than protest, produce an effect that stays in the mind of the reader far more potently and lastingly than a specific note of protest would be likely to do. Furthermore, Dunbar does identify the guilty parties in the lynching, the local judge, doctor, and pastor:

Oh, the judge he wore a mask of black,

And the doctor one of white,

And the minister, with his oldest son,

Was curiously bedight.

As Jean Wagner concedes, "At the time, this required a certain courage."

From Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979. Copyright © 1979 by G.K. Hall & Co.

Peter Revell: On "When Malindy Sings"

One of the most popular of Dunbar’s dialect poems was and is "When Malindy Sings," which builds upon the natural ability of the race in song and is ackowledged to be Dunbar’s tribute to his mother’s spontaneous outbursts of singing as she worked in the kitchen. The message of the poem is one of praise for simpilicity of spirit and the love of God, but the reader is jolted into a humorous view of the situation as he comes to stanze six. Dunbar’s ability to check excessive sentiment is well demonstarted in this poem.

From Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979. Copyright © 1979 by G.K. Hall & Co.

Peter Revell: On "Sympathy"

A poem like "Sympathy"—with its repeated line, "I know what the caged bird feels, alas!"—can be read as a cry against slavery, but was probably written out of the feeling that the poet’s talent was imprisoned in the conventions of his time and exigencies of the literary marketplace.

From Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979. Copyright © 1979 by G.K. Hall & Co.