Saturday, December 3, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Below is the first stanza of Dunbar's "We Wear The Mask."  What do these lines of poetry mean to you?"
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

I think it might be helpful for readers unfamiliar with this famous poem if we present "We Wear the Mask" in its entirely.
       Why should the world be otherwise,
       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!
Whenever I think of this poem I recall the period of time in which Paul Laurence Dunbar lived (1872-1906). It was during Reconstruction when white Americans were steadily at work producing hideous minstrel images of black people, ones that some white Americans today still seem to enjoy. (Think of some of the racially stereotyping images of Obama during and after his campaign for the presidency.) And Dunbar himself fell unintentionally into a trap with the popular dialect verse he wrote, poetry influenced by writers in the racist plantation tradition such as Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Nelson Page, and Irwin Russell---writers who depicted Negroes as being happy serving their masters during the antebellum period.
 But let us not forget that WASP America has long had a love affair with demeaning racial stereotypes for all non-white people, whether these be Sambos, drunken Irishmen, money-lending Jews, or Chinamen in pigtails. One ancient cartoon I remember reading that was published in a popular newspaper in the early 20th century was entitled, "He Saw Him First." It portrayed three Jewish merchants, all with bulbous noses, one wearing a yarmulke, and offered this caption: Einstein: "Cohen caught a burglar in his shtore last night und turned him over to der police." Isaacs: "Vat a fool! Vy didn't he rob him himself?" And clownish Irishmen appeared in one cartoon titled, "Saving His Strength," a panel in which two Irishmen sit drinking and smoking cigars. Casey: "Did ye go over t'see Kelly lasht night?" Costigan: "Oi did not. After Oi'd walked two-thirds av th' way Oi was too toired t'go a shtep further, so Oi turned around an' walked back home again."  On and on for decades, in books, movies, magazines, everyday products and everywhere in pop culture this kind of material saturated the national consciousness and seeped deep into the American psyche. (And that reminds me of another poem: "Must I shoot the white man dead/ To kill the nigger in his head?")
In Dunbar's case, his career was given a boost when he was praised in a review by William Dean Howells for his book Majors and Minors (1895). Howell's felt Dunbar was the first black poet "to feel the Negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically." But Richard Barksdale and Keneth Kinnamon point out in Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology (MacMillan Pub. Co., 1972) that "Howells' judgment was more of a social reaction than a literary evaluation. To white America in the 1890s and early 1900s a Black poet could only be fully acceptable if he presented lyrical pictures of contented ex-slaves written in what appeared to be the gentle folk accents and speech patterns of ex-slaves. Indeed, Dunbar's portraits of a dancing, contented Black people, living a rural life free of hunger, illness and privation, comforted white America and eased its guilty conscience."
 In other words, Dunbar's most popular work (among whites) contributed to one of the worst caricatures of American black people. With "We Wear the Mask," I think Dunbar attempted to undo some of the damage inadvertently caused by his dialect verse and set the record straight with realism.
Beneath that social mask that the white world sees, says Dunbar, there are "torn and bleeding hearts," "tears and sighs," and "tortured souls." His poem reminds me of another one of merely four lines that I've never forgotten. I cannot remember the author of these words (if any E-Channel readers can identify the poet, I will be thankful and in their debt), but they fall on the page as follows:
         Got one face
         For white folks to see,
         Got another one
         That's really me.
 This, sadly, is the psychology of the oppressed, yesterday and today. In a racially hostile world, one must be Janus-faced, even deceitful and duplicitous, never allowing one's oppressor to know how one truly feels if one is powerless to change that oppression. In other words, this is a strategy for survival. In such a situation, candor and truthfulness across racial lines is a liability. Trust is a liability. You never let the oppressor know what you are really thinking and feeling. You wear the mask. In Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the protagonist's grandfather adopts the same strategy of keeping his real feelings hidden or invisible and "Yes sir-ing" white people, telling them exactly what they want to hear, especially if that is a lie that will lead eventually to their own destruction and one's own liberation.
Soon enough, though, the iconography of the plantation tradition writers was extensively challenged and corrected by works from the Harlem Renaissance writers (and certainly by Richard Wright), and the genuine elements of genius in Dunbar's non-dialect work---the way he helped pave the way and prepare for the Renaissance---was acknowledged.

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