We Wear the Mask
By Paul Laurence Dunbar (1913)
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!
In this poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the mask refers to people hiding their true feelings behind a false expression. Specifically, he is referring to the cheerful face that so many African Americans felt necessary to wear. When I first read it, it reminded me of being a child of an alcoholic; how I used humor in front of my friends to hide the shame I felt being a member of such a dysfunctional family. I wanted so much to belong to what I believed to be a normal family – the kind you saw on television. I wished that I had the courage back then to remove the mask. I bet I would have found that I was not alone.