My first experience with Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was through my mother. She had a book of African-American poetry in our home. Once the innocence of childhood began to wane, I opened the book and began reading. This was my first and it moved me instantly. We all wear masks, but imagine for a second what types of masks our forebears had to wear to survive slavery, discrimination, bigotry, and Jim Crow. Imagine the masks we wear today just to keep our jobs, our homes, our families. Paul Laurence Dunbar was called by Frederick Douglass”the most promising young colored man in America.” He was most promising indeed.
We Wear the Mask
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 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!