Amber Davis Professor Quirk Literature 101 February 28, 2013 We Wear the Mask The lyric poem “We wear the mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar is a poem about the African American race, and how they had to conceal their unhappiness and anger from whites. This poem was written in 1895, which is around the era when slavery was abolished. Dunbar, living in this time period, was able to experience the gruesome effects of racism, hatred and prejudice against blacks at its worst.
Using literary techniques such as: alliteration, metaphor, persona, cacophony, apostrophe and paradox, Paul Dunbar’s poem suggests blacks of his time wore masks of smiling faces to hide their true feelings. In the first stanza, he starts off with the title of the poem stating, “we wear the mask that grins and lies” (1). In the first line he uses a metaphor to explain the “mask” that is put on to show grins. Of course there is no actual mask, but the mask can be a representation of a fake personality that is happy or blissful.
It could be said that the reason for this “mask” is to prevent their tormentors from starting any controversy. Dunbar also uses another metaphor, “This debt we pay to human guile…” (3). Obviously he does not mean that there is a debt to human guile that he is paying with money, but rather since blacks have always been seen as deceptive since slave times, they must forever live in it. Since slave times blacks have not been respected. Even after blacks received the right to vote and own land, the federal system still made it hard for blacks to make a breakthrough.
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The use of metaphor is used to describe the overwhelming struggles blacks had to go through in a white man’s world. Through the use of metaphors, Dunbar implies the feelings the blacks once had to fake in order to not get into any trouble. The second stanza, especially, emphasizes the poems paradox and alliteration. This stanza really goes into the mind of the person speaking, and the outcome is a part of the reason why they wear “masks. ” The poem reads, “Why should the world be over-wise,/ In counting all our tears and sighs? / Nay, let them only see s, while/ We wear our masks” (6-9). Essentially, the person of this poem is asking why should the world get the right to know why they are truly upset, and potentially use it against them; instead, have pride, hold your head up high, and put on your “mask. ” In doing so, the literary term paradox comes into play. This poem is about the true feelings of blacks being hidden behind masks, when also the poem itself hides the fundamental issue of racism from even being mentioned – that alone is a paradox because the poem has a mask on as well.
This poem can also be seen as a paradox because this so called “we” is supposed to be wearing a mask when in fact they are expressing their feelings and becoming vulnerable, aka – no more mask. Although each stanza has a bit of alliteration, the second stanza is the most dominant. Dunbar writes, “Why should the world be over-wise,/ In counting all our tears and sighs? / Nay, let them only see us, while/ We wear our masks” (6-9). The alliteration in this stanza is used heavily with the letter “w. With the use of this alliteration, it creates a sense of flow that helps the speaker get his point across more smoothly. Although the poem is more cacophonic, and harsh, rather than euphonic, and harmonious, the use of alliteration helps highlight the importance of this stanza’s sayings. The alliteration aspect of this stanza really helps reveal why the blacks continue to keep a mask up since they do not want others to know their weakness. The final stanza is a plea to God, or in other words an apostrophe.
Dunbar writes, “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries/ To thee from tortured souls arise” (10-11). In writing this, Dunbar makes an apostrophe to the absent Christ since Christ is not currently present in the poem. This verse brings about an emotional side of the speaker that we have not seen in the play, which is the essential effect of apostrophe. In a sense, the speaker is able to take the focus from masks to addressing the fact that they are being tortured; the fact that they are being tortured is exactly why they wear the masks they do, to show they are not intimidated.
Through the use of apostrophe, Dunbar is able to express the emotions of the reader, which ties into why masks need to be warn. Overall, the speaker’s awareness of putting on a fake facade to avoid trouble is apparent through literary devices such as alliteration, metaphors, and apostrophe. Author Dunbar creates a somewhat cacophonic feel to the poem to portray the hurt of these people who must wear masks. Dunbar also uses end rhyme in all of his ersus. The first and second, and also the third and fourth of each line use the long I sound for end rhyme except for the last lines of each stanza. Through the use of many literary devices Dunbar is able to capture the true meaning behind the mask, which is a disguise that camouflages the actual emotions of the mask wearer. Even though the mask is a grinning mask, the face under it is broken and frustrated, but the mask wearer will never show it.
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