Thursday, June 11, 2020

We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar 1872-1906
I remember first reading We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar when I was a high schooler. It wasn't at school, it was at a mid-week church youth group, or Mutual as it is called in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The lesson being taught was about the pain that we often feel but hide from others for the sake of appearances, and how we need to be aware that other people might be feeling pain that we can't see.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was well acquainted with hidden pain. He knew, first hand, the injustice of racism, and how other people who hadn't experienced racism, too often don't see or want to see the pain they are casually causing their fellow humans by the way they treat them. It teaches a powerful lesson in how people who are treated badly, beaten down over and over again, can develop a fake exterior, acting happy and contented because the majority want them to act happy and contented. So they do so for the sake of survival. While I haven't experienced racism myself on a long term basis in my home country, I know what it's like to be systemically pushed down and silenced. I appreciated the poem, because I can relate to much of what it is saying.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born June 27, 1872. He was the first black person to make enough off of his writing to live off of it. He was born free, but his parents had been slaves before they were freed. He wrote numerous poems and novels during his short lifetime, and died tragically of tuberculosis at the age of 33. I often think, when authors and artists die young, like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Sylvia Plath, or Vincent Van Gogh, what great works they could have created if they lived longer. Of course, that question can't be answered. And I am grateful for what Paul Laurence Dunbar did put out into the world, particularly We Wear the Mask, which is my favorite of his poems.

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!

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