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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Peter Revell: On "We Wear the Mask" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Peter Revell Criticism Target Paul Laurence Dunbar
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Aug 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Paul Laurence Dunbar
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