Dunbar’s Mask: Commemorating the Black History Month

English: Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 –...

A wonderful poem that keeps me reflecting on the Black History Month continuously is ‘We Wear the Mask’. This poem is written by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), one of the first and most influential African-American poets. His literary works consist of six volumes of verse, novels, short stories, songs, essays, and librettos. Dunbar’s life – as diverse as his literary genres – was a difficult one, and indeed full of trials. For the most part, he had to survive in a society that heralded the so-called “right” skin colour as a certain passage to securing the right job, the right marriage, and most important of all matching individual and public happiness in the right manner. Dunbar had to struggle not only with these social norms of acceptability, but also with his own private tribulations. His parents’ separation, his own marital difficulties, his illness and dependence on alcohol are but a few to mention. Perhaps one of the most significant sources of sorrow for Dunbar was the fact that he could not finish his studies as a result of financial problems. Yet, he did not stop writing. Nor did he escape realities by taking a leap from weary worries to ragged writing. Instead, he gradually made a poetic career for himself by which he managed to address, unmask, and re-mask those very realities that remained troublesome throughout his life.

What interests me most about his poem, ‘We Wear the Mask’, is Dunbar’s attention to ‘myriad subtleties’; the metaphor for diversity of motions, behaviours, difficulties and colours, worn quite often on the façade and sometimes underneath the mask. It is a poem, I would argue, not only about his general observation of human behavioural pretense, but also reminiscent of his consciousness about colour-diversity in conflict underneath and on the façade. This statement extends beyond the literary trope that Henry Louis Gates and other critics attempted to define. They observed a Dunbar canon, mainly considering his poetic strategy of double voice and dialect verse as ‘Mask in motion’ (Gates, 1987). What I note in Dunbar’s playfulness with words and lines, themes and symbols, meter and matter, specifically in ‘We Wear the Mask’, is more than a literary endeavour or poetic trope; the poem embodies a battle between colours underneath the mask and those on the façade, a conflict created in myriad subtleties. It is clearly the cry of calamity to Christ; a narrative of anguish caused by vile humanity. So far, the poem is mainly a confession.

Peter Revell suggests that ‘The poem is also an apologia for all that his own and succeeding generations would condemn in his work, for the grin of minstrelsy and the lie of the plantation tradition that Dunbar felt himself bound to adopt as part of the “myriad subtleties” required to find a voice and to be heard’ (Revell, 1979). He goes on to argue that the ‘”subtleties” lead us to expect that honest feelings and judgments, when they occur, will be obliquely presented and may be difficult to apprehend, a point of view that many critics of Dunbar have not taken into account’. This is what Dunbar’s apologia is expanding on in ‘We Wear the Mask’; it is a poetic unmasking of the myriad subtleties in/on the mouth, the symbolic embodiment of emotion and expression. But it can also chew and swallow what no other part of the body can manage on the facade, and in proximity with the mask.

The mouth, then, categorically identifies with the position of diversity. Dunbar does not showcase this diversity in specific details, but various emotive elements may be found in every line of the poem.

It is, therefore, intriguingly disputable that a form of partial reading has been applied during the past decades (particularly that which concerns itself with binaries such as ‘writing and colour’), in so far as some scholars have been convinced to focus on poems such as Dunbar’s predominantly from a racial perspective (Hudson, 1975; Emanuel, 1975). Strangely enough, this method of reading African-American poetry continued well into the 1990s and perhaps even to this day. Reading Dunbar’s personal pronouns especially has been of interest to scholars who see these pronouns in their racial context rather than through their emotional content. The “we” of the poem has been explicitly analysed as an indication of race, as we note:

The “we” of the poem is the black folk collective, the speaker a Dunbar persona, or perhaps the real Dunbar lifting the mask from his danced language to speak plainly and unequivocally for just a moment about the double nature of the black experience. To put this another way, he draws aside the veil of the seventh son to give the reader second sight, if only briefly, into the inner circle of the black community and that other truth so often concealed behind Dunbar’s comic drama, his witty lyricism, and his use of irony. In life, the mask covers the face and eyes, and the “torn and bleeding hearts” and the “myriad subtleties” that are mouthed are deliberately indirect and misleading; the speaker of this poem steps out from behind the mask, however, evincing briefly a consummate mastery of all the false “debts” that separate him from authentic wholeness (Braxton, 1993).

Suddenly Dunbar’s conception of diversity is misread in this analysis. Despite her partial generalisation of the personal pronoun as ‘black folk collective’, Braxton has actually lost her way into time and place deixis by remaining focused on the racial context only. Nowhere in the poem a trace of race may be found, except for the metaphorical interpretations and partial generalisations. How would critics analyse the poem, if they had no knowledge of Dunbar’s biographical details, especially his ethnic background and skin colour? I am especially intrigued by the difference between “We” in the first line and “We” in the tenth line of the poem. Following Braxton’s style of analysis and given the partial generalisation mode in academic practice of poetry reading based on biographical evidence, the latter gets interpreted in a similar way. But reading it through an extended deictic shift theory, one can interpret the latter as ‘the white folk collective’ and also beyond racial perspectives. However, to remain loyal to Dunbar’s conception and expression of diversity, I  contend that on the surface interpretation of the mask of this poem, the second we – as well as the first – reflects humanity in general, irrespective of ethnic background.

This is one of the many reasons I disagree with scholars such as Braxton, and unlike her, I suggest a different reading of ‘We Wear the Mask’. Especially for academic practitioners, I would suggest looking into the poem itself as a mask. Perhaps reading it along with Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The Poem as Mask’ would help furthering our understanding of Dunbar’s work.

The Poem as Mask


When I wrote of the women in their dances and

      wildness, it was a mask,

on their mountain, gold-hunting, singing, in orgy,

it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,

fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone down with song,

it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from myself.

             There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory

of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued child

beside me among the doctors, and a word

of rescue from the great eyes.

No more masks! No more mythologies!

Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,

the fragments join in me with their own music.

By Muriel Rukeyser (1913–1980)

Muriel Rukeyser

Muriel Rukeyser (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maryam Farahani is co-director of Texts and Embodiments in Perspective, an interdisciplinary research group at the University of Liverpool. Lecturing in University of Liverpool Centre for Lifelong Learning and a research fellow in the School of Arts, she has expertise in women’s post-Enlightenment literature, focusing on encounters of Oriental and Occidental Romanticism. She tweets from @farahani_maryam

Creative Commons Licence
This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.Contact for permission: (Maryam.Farahani@Erasandareas.com)


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