Joanne M. Braxton

Joanne M. Braxton: On "We Wear the Mask"

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.

Joanne M. Braxton: On "When Malindy Sings"

Dunbar's dialect poetry is rich in drama, irony, understatement, hyperbole, and caricature. The dual voice of Dunbar's poems is a natural result of the double vision that Dunbar inherited as a black and an American and that threatened to tear him apart. His creation of a double voice in his poetry allowed him to speak to two distinct audiences at once. In fact, Dunbar's use of caricature often renders whites more comic than blacks. In "When Malindy Sings," a poem written as a tribute to Dunbar's mother, Matilda, the dialect narrator addresses Miss Lucy.

G'way an' quit dat noise, Miss Lucy—

Put dat music book away;

What's de use to keep on tryin'?

Ef you practise twell you're gray...


You ain't got de nachel o'gans

Fu' to make de soun' come right,

You ain't got de tu'ns an' twistin's

Fu' to make it sweet an' light....


Easy 'nough fu' folk to hollah,

Lookin' at de lines an' dots,

When dey ain't no one kin sence it,

An' de chune comes in, in spots.

Using irony, caricature, and understatement, Dunbar here "signifies" on the whites' assumption of biological and intellectual superiority as well as their ability to read books and music. With all these supposed assets, Miss Lucy can't sing "right"; no amount of practice will render her singing "sweet an' light." And even her ability to "read" is suspect, with the tune coming in "in spots." Malindy may be the subject of the poem, but she is not the one being put down here. The comic use of dialect in "When Malindy Sings" cuts two ways, masking the speaker's critique of a white woman he is not free to criticize openly.

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.

Joanne M. Braxton: On "Sympathy"

The assertion that Dunbar did not continue to grow as a poet may be answered, in part, through a comparison of excerpts from two poems from different stages of Dunbar's career, each bearing the title "Sympathy." The first poem comes from Dunbar's debut collection, Oak and Ivy, but was not reprinted in any of the later collections.

A balm to bathe the wounded heart         Where sorrow's hand hath lain, The link divine from soul to soul         That makes us one in pain,--

Sweet sympathy, benignant ray,         Light of the soul doth shine; In it is human nature giv'n         A touch of the divine.

The language of this excerpt as well as that of the complete poem is stilted and archaic, and while its rigid form demonstrates the author's ability to conform to a European model, the poem itself doesn't breathe. The "Sympathy" written by the young elevator operator who had just graduated from high school might be thought of as a juvenile work or an apprentice piece for the later "Sympathy," which was written sometime during Dunbar's 1897-99 stint as an assistant at the Library of Congress, and which first appeared in Lyrics of the Hearthside (1899). The mature "Sympathy" opens with the unforgettable lines, "I know what the caged bird feels, alas!" By this time Dunbar, although still a young poet at twenty-seven, is nearing the end of his career and his life; he has published a total of four volumes of poetry, each showing a greater mastery of the poet's craft. He has become a more well-rounded individual as a result of his marriage and travel at home and abroad. Even so, Dunbar proclaims, "I know what the caged bird feels." In the powerful imagery of the "Sympathy" from Lyrics of the Hearthside, Dunbar finds the mature form for the sentiment of the earlier poem from Oak and Ivy.

I know why the caged bird beats his wing Till its blood is red on the cruel bars; For he must fly back to his perch and cling When he fain would be on the bough a-swing; And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars And they pulse again with a keener sting-- I know why he beats his wing!

In this later "Sympathy," Dunbar moves away from the imitation of European models and toward a strong poetic voice of his own. Yet he displays his keen awareness of the limitations imposed on him by his culture, including anxiety about self-support, and the psychic injury he felt he had sustained from the abusive misreading of his work by critics following what Dunbar saw as Howells's "dictum" regarding his dialect verse, as well as from the general neglect of his protest ballads and standard English verse based on classical models. Well, then, might Dunbar have identified with the caged bird who sings "When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore."

Writing in the A.M.E. Review in 1914 the poet's widow argued that "a poet is a poet because he understands; because he is born with a divine kinship with all things, and he is a poet in direct ratio to his power of sympathy." She explained that:

"The iron grating of the book stacks in the Library of Congress suggested to him the bars of the bird's cage. June and July days are hot. All out of doors called and the trees of the shaded streets of Washington were tantalizingly suggestive of his beloved streams and fields. The torrid sun poured its rays down into the courtyard of the library and heated the iron grilling of the book stacks until they were like prison bars in more senses than one. The dry dust of the dry books (ironic incongruity!--a poet shut up with medical works), rasped sharply in his hot throat, and he understood how the bird felt when it beats its wings against its cage." (Alice Dunbar, 129)

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.

Joanne M. Braxton: On Dunbar's Life and Career

Paul Laurence Dunbar published in such mainstream journals as Century, Lipincott’s Monthly, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Saturday Evening Post. A gifted poet and a precursor to the Harlem Renaissance, Dunbar was read by both blacks and whites in turn-of-the-century America.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press. , 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press.