Unfortunately during the last year, the world has been forced to literally wear a mask as a safety precaution during the pandemic. However when it comes to the history of my ancestors, the concept of wearing a mask meant something much different. Paul Laurence Dunbar is known for being one of the most influential African American literary scholars of his time. His passion for language and music, along with personal life tragedies have been the motivation behind much of his work. With regards to his poem “We Wear the Mask” (revised here by Maya Angelou), the style as well as the content provides a vivid reflection of the hardships people of color endured as well as how they dealt with restrictions that were placed upon them. The basis of the poem is the immense suffering of blacks and the necessity of painting on a happy face as a survival tactic.
Dunbar “challenges the plantation tradition”. These were slave states that heavily focused on the antebellum times, like Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Arkansas. Whenever African Americans began to rebel, others became afraid and would resort to using psychological methods of power (such as seperating a slave woman from her children). There is reason to believe that the wearing of the mask is a sign of both physical and mental strength. The reality is that psychic strength is a key factor in what blacks; especially woman, developed years before to survive slavery.
“We wear the mask that grins and lies”, is a statement that can be depicted as: why not give those who are different what they want for the sake of keeping the peace. When examining the word “mask” some may view it in the sense of a horse that is blinded; wandering aimlessly as did slaves while working on the plantations. However; in refference to the spirit of African American’s, it seems more reasonable that the intent leans more towards being in disguise, hiding their true character. Although it is not advertised, people of all backgrounds only reveal about themselves what they choose and have various reason for doing so.
Another line from the poem; “the debt we pay with human guile” can be perceived as insidious cunning, deceit or treachery. An alternative perspective is that to be cunning, does not necessarily mean that one is being deceitful. Cunning intellect can be a skill for survival, staying mindful that the goal of slave owners was to break the psyches of their slaves. The language in Dunbar’s poem reflects the bestial way of how blacks were seperated from the common run of humanity. “A mouth with myriad subtleties”, an unfamiliar usage of the word “mouth” is how it relates to facial expression while speaking. Without sound much can still be implied by expression alone. The statement also clearly implies a large amount such as military or Greek soldiers, but more specifically the scenario is based on the tens of thousands of slaves or race as a whole. This behavoir became a way of life. To not show any sign of emotion was for the sake of culture and love for family, which ultimately for many became a form of Black Fictive Kinship.
“We sing, but oh the clay is vile!” Music throughtout the generations in black culture has been a key element psychologically in lifting our spirits. During the days of slavery they would sing in faith as a way of providing hope. “Clay” refers to a stiff vicious earth found in other deposits near the surface of the ground at various depths below, forming a tenacious paste. In turn, through the singing people of color were aslo determined to firmly stand their ground, mainly in faith because that was all they had to cling to. One can also argue that to atleast some extent this may have had a psychological impact on slave masters as well. Imagine doing everything in your power to break someones spirit and tear them down, yet with all the odds against them, they still refused to loose hope or give up. The relevance of the “mask” concept is not limited solely to African Americans, especially in this day and age. People from around the globe at some point, have or will experience wearing the mask. Some because they choose to and others may feel as if they are forced to do so. Be it with-in our work enviorments, social meeting places like church or common peers such as family for one reason or another, we all are simply trying to survive and that experience in itself varies for everyone.