We Wear the Mask
In 1923, Robert T. Kerlin wrote: “It needs to be remarked for white people, that there were two Dunbars, and that they knew but one”. One Dunbar was seen as “the artistic interpreter of the old-fashioned, vanishing generation of black folk” while the other “was the prophet robed in a mantle of austerity”. This is the very theme that Dunbar struck at in “We Wear the Mask.” For, as Theodora W. Daniel pointed out in twenty years later, the average person would see Dunbar as “a painter of delightful vignettes of rural Negro life”. To accept this misperception is to see only the mask that blacks wear. Dunbar’s poem both reveals the existence of the mask and forever establishes that white people will only ever see his mask.
One of the most common themes in African-American literature is that of the “Uncle Tom,” taken from a character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. An Uncle Tom is a black man who grins a lot and says “yassur” and “nossur” to the white man. Southern whites created a myth of the happy slave based on the Uncle Tom stereotype. What Dunbar quickly reveals is that Uncle Tom is a mask, a false front for the white man:
We wear the mask that grins and lies—
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes
This debt we pay to human guile;
In fact, Dunbar is quite specific in his use of the word “guile,” meaning deceitful cunning. The mask is an act, a survival technique; a way of keeping the suspicions of the white man at bay. Even Dunbar himself found conflict in the need to wear the mask. Carlin. T. Kindilien wrote: “His audience demanded the Negro minstrel man; Dunbar wanted to write of the Negro behind the mask”. Indeed, Dunbar’s mask proved so effective that many scholars dismissed his work for “perpetuating the derogatory caricatures of the minstrel show and the plantation tales”.
But the mask comes at a price:
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth my myriad subtleties.
The mask prevents the white man seeing the black man. Ralph Ellison would later characterize this as being “invisible,” in his novel Invisible Man. Jazz great Louis Armstrong was often accused of being an Uncle Tom: he grinned a lot and often had to dress in jungle outfits, but Armstrong was quick to ask, “why must I be so black and blue?” a double pun that showed that he, too, wore the mask.