I “Little Jack Hornered” this one from the anthology—literally chose the sample poem by sticking my thumb in blind and choosing the first page I opened to. I allowed myself 15 minutes of internet research time (you’ll have c. 48 hours open to you), making notes as I went, then sat down and wrote for 40 minutes. I finished by editing and tidying up for another 5 minutes or so. The last thing I did was stick on a title. I wanted this sample to be produced as closely as possible under the same working conditions you face yourselves – the only “unfair” advantage being my 30-year history of writing stuff like this. That I couldn’t erase or cancel.

“little smiling hooks” – Happiness and Pain in Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask”

            Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” is a lyric poem. It features rhyming lines and fairly regular line lengths, but otherwise conforms to no specific pattern or type of lyric poetry. It is divided into three stanzas of unequal lengths, the first 5 lines, the second 4 lines, and the third 6 lines. The title appears at the end of the second stanza and is repeated at the end of the third.

            Though there is nothing which specifically identifies the speaker of the poem, a little research suggests that Dunbar is speaking as an African American in the poem – not merely in his own voice but in a voice representing Black America toward the end of the 19th century. The plurals “we,” “us” and “our” (seen a total of 12 times in the 15 lines of the poem) help to identify the speaker as part of a community, not merely an individual. It is an early poem in Dunbar’s career, published when he was 23, and, again, a little digging leads to the conclusion that it is not typical of the speaking voice often used by Dunbar in verse, but it does address important issues related to his more common voice and tone. The tone of this poem is not happy. Words like “anguished,” “hurt” or “frustrated” might all be fairly used to characterize the speaker’s attitude toward “the mask” that seems to be his main subject. Words such as “lies” (l. 1) and “guile” (3) suggest that the mask is a false front, and phrases like “torn and bleeding hearts” (4) and “tortured souls” (11) clearly show that the tone of the poem is negative.

            The most important use of figurative language in the poem is the “mask” of the title. Named once in each stanza (1, 9, 15), the mask rapidly comes to be seen as symbolic of something used to hide the true self from the world. A mask can be interpreted as a common or public symbol as it has, from ancient times, been associated with disguise, protection, concealment – even communication in the ancient Greek theatre days. Other attention might be paid to suggestion of diction in the poem. The speaker’s diction is fairly formal and deliberately poetic, featuring words like “myriad subtleties” (5) and “guile” (3), and inversion of common speech patterns in phrases like “and long the mile” (13). There is also a fairly complex rhyme scheme in the poem, as rhymes repeat not only within stanzas but also from stanza to next stanza. The poet is not chained to his pattern, however, using “subtleties” at the end of stanza 1, which is an off-rhyme. Similarly, “overwise” (6) and “otherwise” (14) partly echo. Linking “grins and lies” (1), “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile” (4), and the image of singing while “the clay is vile / Beneath our feet” (12-3) all strongly suggests that the speaker’s people often pretend to be happy while actually suffering a lot. Calling on Christ (10, 11) is also interesting, suggesting a religious faith still underlying whatever their suffering may be.

            As suggested above, no specific mention is made in the poem of Dunbar’s African ancestry. A reader knowing nothing at all about Dunbar might miss the racial foundation of the poem. This situation illustrates the usefulness of doing a little research into the poet behind the poem in order to help shape interpretation. In Dunbar’s own time, he was very well known, praised highly by significant white U.S. writers and critics, thus an audience seeing the poem in 1895 would likely have known at once that Dunbar was addressing the state of Black life in the U.S.A. of the first post-slavery generation. The contemporary reader has to do a little more digging to reach that important component. Dunbar seems to be arguing in this short poem that the quality of life for African Americans at the end of the 19th century was fairly bad, and typically characterized by a lot of pretending to be happy while feeling miserable. The lines “let them only see us, while / We wear the mask” (8-9) suggest that the pretense of happiness is a kind of protective device, deliberately worn to “[hide] our cheeks and [shade] our eyes” (2). Similarly, the final stanza, portraying smiling faces crying out to Jesus “from tortured souls” (11) while allowing “the world [to] dream otherwise” (14) suggests that the mask is chosen, rather than imposed. It is possible, however, that the speaker feels there is no choice but to accept the need to disguise one’s true feelings. In that sense the mask is not chosen so much as tolerated as a necessity.

            A little research shows that Dunbar frequently wrote in dialect forms, reproducing the rhythms, diction and style of African American speech. In this poem, the reader sees none of that. Diction and expression are all formal, completely in harmony with standard American English usage. In fact, Dunbar grew very tired of writing dialect styles but found editors rejected any of his poems that didn’t sound “black.” Ironically, later generations sometimes criticized Dunbar for conforming too much to white stereotypes of what black people ought to write like. Part of his anger at being perceived as only interesting when he perpetuated cultural stereotypes about his people is visible in “We Wear the Mask.”

Research Notes:

-- for the in-class essays, these notes do not require documentation; it is always helpful to keep a record of where you found the information, but it doesn’t have to be included in the essay; for the final term paper, the source of all secondary information must be fully documented/identified

He was popular with black and white readers of his day

His style encompasses two distinct voices -- the standard English of the classical poet and the evocative dialect of the turn-of-the-century black community in America.

He was the only black student at Dayton Central High School and he participated actively as a student.

Dunbar's first published work came in a newspaper put out by his high school friends Wilbur and Orville Wright, who owned a printing plant.

In 1900, Dunbar was diagnosed with tuberculosis


Dunbar remained always suspicious that there was something demeaning about the marketability of dialect poems:

I am tired, so tired of dialect. I send out graceful little poems, suited for any of the magazines, but they are returned to me by editors who say, Dunbar, but we do not care for the language compositions.


a "pure Black" - that is, both his mother and father were known not have white ancestors. Dunbar's father escaped from slavery in Kentucky to freedom in Canada, while his mother was freed by the events of the civil war


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.

Significantly an early poem, it is spoken by black people and for black people.

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.