We Wear the Mask
by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
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 over-wise,
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!
Born on June 27, 1872, Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first African-American poets to gain national recognition. His parents Joshua and Matilda Murphy Dunbar were freed slaves from Kentucky. His parents separated shortly after his birth, but Dunbar would draw on their stories of plantation life throughout his writing career.
By 1895, Dunbar’s poems began appearing in major national newspapers and magazines, such as The New York Times. With the help of friends, he published the second collection, Majors and Minors (1895). The poems written in standard English were called “majors,” and those in dialect were termed “minors.” Although the “major” poems outnumber those written in dialect, it was the dialect poems that brought Dunbar the most attention. The noted novelist and critic William Dean Howells gave a favorable review to the poems in Harper’s Weekly.
The above poem appeared in Dunbar’s first professionally published volume, Lyrics of Lowly Life, in 1896 by Dodd, Mead, and Company. It also appeared in the volume Majors and Minors from the previous year.
To get by in America of the late 19th Century, blacks frequently concealed their pain, frustration, and anger from whites, as well as from one another. For blacks to reveal publicly their true feelings about whites’ maltreatment of them would have been to risk dangerous retaliation. After all, prejudice was official policy in Dunbar’s lifetime–governmentally and otherwise–and whites vastly outnumbered blacks. Sometimes, blacks even withheld their true feelings from one another, for defeat and desperation were difficult to articulate–and could impose deep anxiety upon loved ones. So it was that many blacks wore a mask that suggested happiness and contentment but concealed acute distress and pain.
Since Dunbar avoids specifically mentioning blacks and their suffering, the poem could stand as a lament on behalf of all people forced to wear a “mask”–the girl who hides her pregnancy from her parents, the boy who defensively humors an abusive parent, the soldier under fire who writes home that all is well when all is not well. One may fairly argue that the poem is about every human being. Who, after all, has not worn a mask on occasion to conceal hurt, frustration, disappointment?
As gay men, we often wear a mask, especially if we are in the closet. We can’t be our true selves, we conceal our love of other men, we conceal the pain from friends and family when they make homophobic comments, we face the anger and frustration in near silence because we fear for our jobs and out livelihood. In many ways this is changing in some parts of the United States, but not in all parts. Even in areas where out LGBT people are able to be more out and proud, there still exists homophobia and discrimination.
I remember on the movie The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s character wanted to be very vocal about the AIDS epidemic, but even those in the movement with him were afraid of being too vocal. Even today, we have people within the LGBT community that preach constant civility, even when we are very angry and hurt. I admit, I do think politeness is the way to go, but within the LGBT community, we should be open and honest, and we should have more opportunities to be who we are. We all wear masks, but one day, and one day soon, I hope that there will no longer be a need for those masks. We will have the protections we need and deserve to be fully equal citizens, no matter where we live in this country or in the world.