We Wear the Mask

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 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!

“We Wear the Mask” was written by African American poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1895. Like much of Dunbar’s work, “We Wear the Mask” is a reaction to the experience of being black in America in the late 19th century, following the Civil War—a period when life seemed to have improved for black Americans yet in reality was still marked by intense racism and hardship. Dunbar compares surviving the pain of oppression to wearing a mask that hides the suffering of its wearer while presenting a more joyful face to the world.

The poem itself does not specifically mention race; its message is applicable to any circumstance in which marginalized people are forced to present a brave face in order to survive in an unsympathetic, prejudiced society. The poem begins with the speaker stating that “We,” a reference to all of humankind, put on masks. We wear them and others use them to ignore the problems that exist in modern society. They have a deep impact on our understanding of ourselves and others. Hearts are changed through tearing and mouths contain endless expressions.

“We Wear the Mask” talks about hiding behind masks to disguise our true selves, much like the LGBTQ community and the closet. Today, it feels like it could have a different meaning. Wearing a mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 tells us a lot about others. Those who don’t wear them are not only putting themselves at risk but also those around them. By not wearing a mask, they are committing a selfish act. By wearing a mask, we not only protect ourselves, but we show we have compassion for those around us. While politicians and their supporters fight over the topic of wearing masks, a growing number of scientific studies support the idea that masks are a critical tool in curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

Wearing a mask doesn’t take the place of other important COVID-19 prevention protocols, such as social distancing and handwashing. You can go out in public areas without a mask only if there is no one nearby. Otherwise, regardless if it’s close quarters or spaced out, you should wear a mask with others around. This is precaution and courtesy to yourself and those nearby you. Medical experts tell us that during the first wave of the pandemic, those countries that implemented masking early were more successful than others at reducing the spread of the virus. Wearing a mask doesn’t mean that you are weak or afraid or a coward. Not wearing it however tells those around you how selfish you are. It’s a way to protect the vulnerable around you. It’s our duty to keep each other healthy. So, please wear your masks.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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