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The Message of the Mask

Unfortunately, Paul Laurence Dunbar remains one of the most misunderstood American poets. A significant amount of the critical work regarding Dunbar places him outside of the protest tradition, instead positioning him as an accommodationist, a writer who resorted to white stereotypes defining black life. However, a close reading of "We Wear the Mask" soundly repels those notions. "Mask" reveals Dunbar to be a poet keenly aware of the ironizing strategies of black folk who are living in the toxic environment of white supremacy, and the attentive reader is able to discern how Dunbar is employing those same ironizing strategies himself.

A common opinion of Dunbar finds him a naïve optimist, a writer that idealized antebellum slave life. As Dunbar biographer Gossie Harold Hudson notes, “reviewers of [Dunbar] generally agree that he was a plantation apologist,” and that “there is a certain amount of truth in this appraisal.” [1] Jean Wagner, has done of the most extensive and damaging studies of Dunbar, paints him as an echoer of the plantation and minstrel traditions, even calling him a poet who “closely espoused the attitudes of white people toward his own race.” [2] Wagner deemphasizes Dunbar’s agency and race consciousness throughout his examination, positioning his dialect work as the sophomoric effort of a humorist. In Wagner’s look at "Mask", he momentarily steps away from the view of Dunbar as a strict optimist, but accommodationist language still infects his interpretation: he refers to the speaker as a “black buffoon” wearing the “smile of the black minstrel.” [3] This perception of simplicity, of surface humor, of hegemonic accommodation just does not hold up under a precise reading of “Mask.” The answers are in the text.

Dunbar is incredibly economical in "Mask," and he begins to orient the reader in the mythos of the black-worn mask immediately. The poem begins:

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.

Dunbar establishes the poem’s form with the characteristic AABBA first stanza of the rondeau. His form of choice suits the ironic content. The rondeau, a descendent of 14 th century French pop poetry set to music, is generally geared towards lighthearted subject matter, or more serious content that takes a pleasant turn at the end, a history that Dunbar knowingly plays with here. Any rondeau worth the reader’s time is built on an excellent refrain and Dunbar’s is perfect. Poignant, it encapsulates the poem’s aim and focuses the reader on exactly what they should be paying attention to: the wearing of the mask. Henry Louis Gates writes: “it is the mask that attracts us to blackness, and rightly so. For therein is contained, as well as reflected, a coded, secret, hermetic world, a world discovered only by the initiate.” [4] It is Dunbar’s aim in “Mask” to make initiates out of his readers. The brisk iambic tetrameter adds to the quiet urgency created by the need to orient the reader, and together they offer the sensation that Dunbar quickly and discreetly pulls to show the realities of black life.

Those realities are the result of a shared existence of people bound by the mask-as-survival-tool. In the first line, the mask is grinning, lying. because though the faces may be laughing, the mask is there to mislead, to pacify (also note that the mask is always singular despite the use of the pronoun "we" in the poem, implying unity). Dunbar wrote this poem at a time when the rape, torture, and murder of black people were considered valid forms of retaliation to any counter-hegemonic offense, however slight or grave, perceived or real. The mask then acts as a mitigating agent, as the best defense against the constant threat of violence and destruction. Presenting a non-threatening façade and fitting exactly into the subservient, non-threatening roles that white supremacy designates are the critical functions of the mask, and it is here that we see how strongly this poem pushes against the misinterpretations of its author. Dunbar intimates the necessity of survival, that the mask “is not accommodationism; it is the wisdom of endurance.” [5] Though it is a skill— the evasion, the misdirection, the guile— Dunbar informs in the third line that every concealment, no matter how necessary, is injurious to the individuals and/or groups that carry out the illusion. The “torn and bleeding hearts” are created in the violent environment of racial hatred and they remain damaged because they aren’t allowed to be fully, openly human. The fifth line explains the idea that in place of healing there is veiled acknowledgment of shared pain: codified language that carries the barest essentials to endure the specific type of tyranny where the oppressed and oppressor share both land and language. A child of formerly enslaved parents, he understands the “myriad subtleties” of black speech, how the mask extended even, or perhaps especially, to language, that there was no advantage in plainly telling the truth for a black person in post-slavery America, only risk. Dunbar replicates that reality in his poems about black life. There is almost always hidden meaning and significance in the poetic situations that he chooses, and the readers of "Mask" and his dialect poems should expect and look for the correspondence between the mask and what it is hiding behind it. One could say, given the reception , Dunbar has received from many of his critics, he may have hidden that meaning too well.

In the final two stanzas of "Mask," Dunbar anticipates the idea that W.E.B. Du Bois would later title “double consciousness,” which is the inherent and necessary duality of the American Negro's self-awareness: the ability to see one’s own self clearly, and to see how that same self will be reflected in the distorted mirror of white supremacy. Dunbar emphasizes this idea of knowing concealment in the interest of safety in the final two stanzas:

Why should the world be overwise,
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!

The language indicates an acuity on the part of the mask-wearers: they are aware of how “the world” sees them and how to go about keeping that “dream” untroubled by reality. Again we see a direct rebuke to the notion that Dunbar was a “plantation apologist” and more interested in accommodating than being a commentator on the realities of his race. There is no reason for “the world to be overwise,” to be brought up to speed on the intrinsic suffering of post-slavery black life because they cannot handle it: a hegemony so easily fooled by the “mask-in-motion,” [6] and so prone to violence and hostility, can not be trusted with the truth. Dunbar knew even if those for whom the mask was intended were told the function of the mask, they would still be unable to grasp its implications—an instinct that has been proven prescient by some of the scholarship on Dunbar. God hears the cries that “from tortured souls arise” and those included in the pronoun “we” understand clearly. However, everyone else will only be allowed to see the smiling, singing, jovial face and accompanying voice of the mask. Dunbar understood the delicate and complex meaning of the mask, just as he understood his delicate and complex place as the first prominent black poet within the hostile and dismissive atmosphere of white supremacy. As Dunbar said in a letter to Helen Douglass, the widow of Frederick Douglass: “I have nothing to say save that I am sorry to find among intelligent people those who are unable to differentiate dialect as a philological branch from the burlesque of Negro Minstrelsy.” [7] To miss the great tenderness and understanding Dunbar infused in “Mask" is to be guilty of only seeing the veil, not what lies behind it.

Author’s Bio:

Quenton Baker is a poet and educator from Seattle. His current focus is the fact of blackness in American society. He is the author of the chapbook Diglossic in the Second America (Punch Press 2015). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Vinyl, The New Guard, Pacifica Literary Review, and in the anthologies Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters and It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop. He has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Southern Maine and was a 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee. He is a 2015-2016 Made at Hugo House fellow.

[1] Gossie Harold Hudson, “Paul Laurence Dunbar: Dialect Et La Negritude,” Phylon 34.3 (1973): 243.

[2] Jean Wagner, Black Poets of the United States (Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1973) 93.

[3] Wagner 123

[4] Henry Louis Gates, Figures in Black (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989) 167.

[5] Herbert Martin, Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Singer of Songs (Columbus: State Library of Ohio, 1979) 8.

[6] Gates 168

[7] Martin 10