dose of poetry: we wear the mask by dunbar

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Here is a poem I found this week that I decided I just had to share.

“We Wear The Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar

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.

Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

It struck me the emphasis that Paul Laurence Dunbar put on smiling to deceive people about how you are feeling. “We wear the mask that grins and lies” and “with torn and bleeding hearts we smile.” He is very right. It’s interesting how most conceal how they are feeling by controlling their facial expressions a lot of the time. Why do we do this? Do we think that people will look at our allowing our problems to shine through our “mask,” and affect our everyday expressions and interactions, as a sign of weakness or attention seeking behavior?

Is Paul Laurence Dunbar talking about how hard it was to be an African-American in the 1800s? That they had to smile, and act as if everything was fine, while they were struck with the unjust way they were treated and the inequality they had to face every day? That’s not how I saw his poem at first, but then I read that the author had been the only African-American at his high school, and that he excelled to become the school newspaper editor and class president. Did he achieve those positions in part because he was always smiling, making jokes back and brushing off racist statements, hiding his hurt by acting like he was unaffected by their comments?

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