Paul Laurence Dunbar; ‘We Wear the Mask.’
We act and interact with people. Our disposition with A is different from that of B. With C it is yet different. We converse with the people with a purpose. We know what to talk to a particular individual and what not to talk. We change the track of the talk, just like a chameleon changes colors. There is a good admixture of conflict within the co-operation we extend in a given situation. A hidden agenda is part of our declared and published agenda. Even when we pretend to walk on the royal road, we keep in mind the plan of escape through the secret route. Our priorities within and without are mostly different and they are guided by extraneous considerations. The mask is sandwiched between perception and presentation of issues. That’s what Paul Laurence Dunbar means– we wear the mask!
One can’t study a man by studying one’s palms, hair, legs or foot. We can gauge an individual by studying the reactions on one’s face. To hide the true emotions in front of other human beings, for whatever reasons, we wear masks. Knowing fully well that pretense will not pay in the long run, and yet we pretend! The shadow is not the reality of a personality and yet we think about the shadow—the mask! We have a casual approach towards honesty. We pretend to believe others to please them and try to please others by our pretense. We are permanently at war with our own selves and think of victory through guile. We switch-off and switch-on the grin, because it is the grin that is meant to lie.
May be that we wear mask not to outsmart others, but with a genuine feeling to hide our true emotions, the suffering on account of trials and tribulations. We sincerely don’t wish others– our intimate friends and well-wishers– to know about our suffering and sympathize with us. Rather we are inclined to suffer privately. In such situations human beings wear masks to hide the reality of the difficult situation. When we wear masks we are like actors in a drama. What we talk is the rehearsed dialogue written for us by others. Our heart and minds are not involved in those emotions.
After a matter of fact introduction to the mask, the poet comes to the serious aspect– the necessity to wear the mask! He makes an agonized prayer to Christ as he writes, ‘We smile, but O great Christ, our cries To thee from tortured souls arise.’ Here, the poet pleads forgiveness with the Lord while he submits to him the reasons for compulsorily wearing the mask. Because the All-Pervading and the All-knowing Lord can understand the reasons as to why one is obliged to wear the masks to enable one to overcome the hopeless situations in life.
In the lines, ‘We sing, but oh the clay is vile Beneath our feet, and long the mile’-the poet suddenly remembers the past life of American Negroes, their heroism in desperate situations, the inhuman treatment they received at the hands of their so-called masters, the history of slavery and oppression , escape on foot and death of many salves etc. Yet we wear the mask, (of pretending to be happy) the poet says. Smile even in the face of extreme rebuff and hatred. To overcome a precarious situation we are obliged to wear a mask for protection, he surmises. Mask is a ‘weapon’ of survival on many occasions.
(Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
We can get at the real meaning and import of the poem when we pay attention to the period to which the poet belonged. The bitter race-relations were the dominant issue and the Negro-race was at the receiving end. The atrocities committed on them are too horrible for the printed page to capture. The lines of the poem are indeed poet’s cries in anguish. His utter grief is poignantly expressed in every line. The poem highlights, in the grim situations prevailing in the era to which Dunbar belonged, how the Black Race was obliged to lead a cynical life under extremely trying conditions- by wearing the mask!