African American Oppression In The Poem We Wear The Mask

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Paul Laurence Dunbar’s lyrical rondeau poem – ‘We Wear the Mask’ indicates the oppressed treatment faced by African Americans by focusing on their lack of identity over the subject of the ‘mask’ which interconnects the trauma of slavery. Within this essay, I will be analysing the way Dunbar explores the suffering of African American’s through analysing the relationship established between poetry, politics, and representation.

Dunbar opens the poem with the introduction to his extended metaphor of the mask through a direct, conversational mode of address to the reader; by using the phrase ‘We wear the mask!’ (1). The refrain of ‘we’ is repeated frequently throughout the rest of the poem, placing the speaker as representing a wider group of African Americans while also reiterating this is as an ongoing issue for the majority of African Americans as their mask ‘grins and lies’ (1). The representation of the African American’s ‘grins and lies’ echo their suffering as they are unable to portray their true emotions and are forced to hide behind a mask that presents them as being content with their life and treatment despite them having ‘torn and bleeding hearts’ (4)

The ideology of suffering is also reflected in the style in which this poem is written. In terms of the politics of form Dunbar, as well as many other African American poets utilized forms of the white-dominated literary canon. ‘We Wear the Mask’ is written as a rondeau (a typical ‘French form’ – poetic form handout page 3 and 4-), this traditional recognisable form adds to the ideology of hiding behind a ‘mask’ in the sense that on the one hand, African American poets could express their opinion behind a noticeable form as their particular style may not have been recognised as widely and the reassurance that through a conventional form their voices may get received. Another example of African American poets using traditional form is Claude McKay’s ‘The Tropics in New York’ (which is written in traditional English iambic pentameter) again highlighting how they can express their emotional state is through traditional forms. Whereas, through these forms, it is also demonstrating that African Americans were equally as capable as writing in a style such as rondeau and iambic pentameter like many traditional white poets and playwrights and not as inferior as the white society portrayed them. As said in Langston Hughes’ critical essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” where he argues that the ‘“high class” Negro has nothing better to offer.”’ Hughes also supports this ideology of black poets utilizing the poetic form of traditional white poets as he conveys this perception of hiding true identities behind a ‘mask’ in his essay, evidently through his description of a ‘young negro poet’ wanting ‘to be like a white poet’. Essentially meaning that the poet ‘would like to be white’ – this encapsulates the idea of African American’s hiding their true identity with a false ‘smile’ (4). Dunbar also criticises the society in which this suffering is occurring, he does this by highlighting the sheer ignorance and inconsideration towards the lives of the African American people by stating ‘let them only see us, while / We wear the mask.’ The enjambment of these lines incites the refrain of ‘We’ to stand out in comparison to the rest of the poem echoes the idea that they still live on with this suffering while the opposite race only sees their happiness forced by their ‘mask’ of hidden emotions.

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Suffering is also reiterated coherently throughout Dunbar’s poem. Through representation Dunbar explores the intensity of African Americans suffering from a prejudiced society; a clear example of this is highlighted through ‘We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries /To thee from tortured souls arise.’ Here Dunbar uses the repeated phrase of ‘smile’ which reminds the reader of this idea that the truth is covered up by a simple ‘smile’ reminding the reader of the ignorance African Americans endured when dealing with emotional conflicts. Dunbar also alludes to ‘O great Christ,’ which emphasises the desperation in the speaker’s tone for support which society appears to be avoiding – encouraging the speaker to turn to a religious, superior figure to be content; as the ‘tortured souls’ are expected to appear with a ‘smile’. In the critical essay ‘we wear the mask the making of a poet’() Leonard also supports this ideology of the suffering caused by the white society, in writing about ‘We Wear the Mask’ he states that Dunbar ‘was referring to how African Americans, whether poets or not, had at times to adapt versions of these popular images in their daily interactions with whites in order to survive.’ (207) which shows….

Leonard also supports my point of suffering through representation as ‘it is clear that mainstream white society had little interest in the true emotional lives of black people and certainly not in their suffering.’ This is reflected through the image Dunbar presents in the ending lines ‘But let the world dream otherwise, / We wear the mask!’ again the refrain is repeated here which reminds the reader of the suffering and trauma experienced by this minority. We are exposed to the unconcerned image ‘let the world dream otherwise’ which through the verb ‘let’ concludes that the society that the African American’s are in will never acknowledge their true suffering so they have to ‘let’ them believe the false emotions portrayed through the ‘mask’.

In conclusion, I believe that Dunbar explores the extent of suffering experienced by African Americans evidently through poetry, politics and representation. The extended metaphor of the ‘mask’ reiterates the extent of their suffering and the ignorance faced by the white society of that time. However, the style of this poem also reiterates the knowledge and capability of writing in a stylised, traditional way – such as Rondeau – showing their skills as equally as those of traditional white poets or playwrights.

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