Symbolism In We Wear The Mask

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“We Wear the Mask:” An Exploration of 19th Century African American Emotion
During the 19th century, the United States was rife with turmoil. The Civil War had abolished slavery, and African Americans had gained the rights to vote and own property. However, the idea of slavery was still fresh in the minds of all Americans; African Americans were still treated as lower class citizens. It is from this United States that several distraught poets were born – among them, Paul Laurence Dunbar. The son of slaves, Dunbar became the first African American man to earn a living through poetry by using his poems to express the frustrations of the African American man in the 19th century. Often, his works were of one extreme or the other – his poems spoken
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In this case, African tribes often used masks during their rites ceremonies and rituals. When the mask is first sculpted, the aim is to “depict a person’s psychological and moral characteristics, rather than provide a portrait [of the wearer]”. This idea of becoming one’s own characteristics, rather than being seen based on their outward appearance, would be understandably attractive to the African Americans in 19th century America. While having other, often supernatural, uses, wearing a mask is primarily “a means of partially or wholly covering the face to render it unrecognizable, and through which the masker acquires another identity,” another very attractive concept to African Americans at the time. Dunbar mimics this same sentiment throughout “We Wear the Mask” by using that symbolism. When the mask “grins and lies/ It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,” the mask is simultaneously covering the two parts of the face that show the most emotion – the eyes and cheeks, which convey tears and smiles – while outwardly showing a grin that is a self-proclaimed lie. This idea is proven in the next line when Dunbar explains the “debt we pay to human guile,” which is, in essence, proclaiming that he owes a debt to the ability …show more content…
While being forced into the Jim Crow “separate but equal” state, they were still healing from the wounds of slavery, which were stitched not very long beforehand. These wounds were not mended with the concept of segregation, but were ripped open fresh. The salt in those wounds was the ability of law enforcement to simply look the other way if an African American man were to disappear or even die at the hands of a white man. Paul Laurence Dunbar understood the need to hide that wound from the world in which they lived, so as to prevent it from being poked and prodded at by the people who had oppressed them for generations. Though very different from his earlier (and much of his later) works, “We Wear the Mask” is one of the most prolific writings to come from 19th century African American culture. Indeed, these are words that still ring loudly in the ears of any race, culture, or creed, even in the modern

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