Paul Laurence Dunbar
We Wear the Mask"
I chose the poem, "We Wear the Mask
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
http://www.potw.org/archive/potw8.html because an immediate connection can be made to one of our core novels,
Getting Away with Murder,
by Chris Crowe. Dunbar was also one of Langston Hughes's influences as he began to write poetry. This novel is a non-fiction account of Emmett Till, a black boy from Chicago who was sent to visit his family in the South and who ended up dead because of adolescent behavior not afforded to blacks during the fifties. When my students first hear the story of the atrocities endured by Emmett, who was the same age as most of my students, they are appalled and outraged. Again, as we read this poem, I will give my students some background information on the author and about the struggles and important historical events that led to changes in civil rights including the obvious court cases of Plessy versus Ferguson and Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka. Learning that Dunbar was the son of slaves, born soon after the civil war, and that he became the first black class president and poet in an all white school, will set the stage for understanding the poem and the connection to our novel. Dunbar's story will provide a foundation for the emotional tension of Blacks that lasted until Emmett Till was born and beyond and should help them continue their conversation about the hardship of being Black in America.
The poem ostensibly concerns itself with the oppressed, collective black slave who does whatever is necessary to avoid provocation. Will my students make the connection to Hughes's poem? I believe they would. Initially, because we read of Dunbar's exposure to racial prejudice and his race-based literary employment rejections, we will discover that he writes with a voice that can express the ideas of hidden depression and despair. It is through this knowledge that we will also come to understand that this poem is both a paradox, providing inconsistent throughout the poem, and an extended metaphor. Nowhere in the poem is color, slavery, civil war, racism, or prejudice mentioned yet we will come to appreciate that the poem is precisely about these things and it actually wears a mask to hide them. The metaphoric mask is established in line one and continues throughout the poem. We need to ask ourselves, "How does the language and rhythm contribute to the meaning, emotional force, and overall tone of the poem?" We need to investigate word choice, meaning, and rhythm to listen to the sound in this poem.
: Would you characterize the poet's word choice as formal or conversational? If the poet uses a specific dialect for the speaker, can you explain why? How does the time period affect the word choice? Can you tell from the language, when a poem was written?
The language in this poem is different from that in "Mother to Son."
It is more formal, more factual, and more informative. Diction and dialect do not have a substantive role in the lines although, because it speaks to the ideas of slavery and prejudice, we might suspect it should. Hopefully my students will see that the speaker, the universal
of slavery, is trying to hide "behind a mask" and hence, can not speak as he would normally. He is speaking formally on purpose. Because we know the time period from which Dunbar is writing, we arrive at the conclusion that the universal slave or a descendent of one is speaking. But how do we know this?
Meaning: What are a particular word's
(the emotions, values, or images associated with it) and a specific word's
(its literal meaning) Are certain words repeated? Are they abstract or concrete, literal or metaphorical (symbolic)? What words does Dunbar choose to express the ideas of torture, shame, and duplicity? How do we know how we must read them, where to place the emphasis, and what emotions lie beneath?
From the beginning, there is a forced tightness to the poem. We instantly feel the tension between wearing a mask and having to smile. We are told that he needs to hide his cheeks so we do not see or hear his tears and he needs to shade his eyes, a typical stance of a Negro slave who is too fearful to even glance at his master. It represents the act of ultimate submission. We see the treachery and the duplicity in the line,
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.
In the second stanza there is a slight crack in the tone when he asks why, "Why should the world know about our tears?" What gives the world this right to know? There is an implication that "Who's going to care, anyway?" There is anger mixed with sarcasm but he retreats and goes back behind the mask at the end of the stanza.
Nay, let them only see us, while We wear the mask.
Finally, it is in the last stanza that we hear his pleas to Christ from the angry, tortured souls. Here, though, the mask has added another layer, that of singing. He sings to hide his pain and humiliation and he continues to drag on the long mile. In order to hear the tones of treachery, anger, humiliation, and torture, we will read the poem aloud looking for ways to allow for these tones to emerge and perhaps even memorizing it. We will need to ask what these emotions sound like. How do we express treachery, anger, humiliation, and torture? This might leads us to consider the questions of rhythm and rhyme that are woven into the poem and that add to the overall tone and formality of the poem. It is here that sound and meaning come into focus as tone.
: How many
are in each line? Does it follow a pattern? What syllables are
and unstressed? How does
(the repetition of the same sound at the beginning of a word),
the repetition of vowel sounds, or
(the repetition of consonants), enhance the rhythm, movement, and musicality of the poem? What words do these sounds emphasize? Does the poem have its identifiable
? For example, does it have meter? Is the meter
? (a foot consisting of an unaccented and accented syllable).
Rhythm is sometimes hard to hear. Rereading this poem aloud several times should certainly highlight the sound of rhythm and rhyme that is expressed so visually and audibly in this first stanza of the poem
We wear the mask that grins and
It hides our cheeks and shades our
This debt we pay to human
With torn and bleeding hearts we
And mouth with myriads subtleties.
Here, we will see in the first four lines, eight syllables with four pairs of unstressed followed by stressed feet (iambic tetrameter). It's very regular iambic tetrameter with strong beats. My students should then be guided to recognizing the pairs of rhyming lines which we can then identify as couplets. If we continue in this vein, they might be able to recognize that each word in the first two lines is but a single syllable. There might be a tendency to read it in an almost sing-song fashion, yet I am sure no one will describe the meaning as one holding a nursery rhyme-like theme or anything remotely upbeat. This is where context and acoustics are intertwined and cannot and should not be separated. Putting a laser on meter and rhyme, my top group might notice the word "myriad" in the last line and question its syllabication and pronunciation. In order to make it fit the meter patterning, myriad is slurred thus changing it from a three syllable word myr-i-ad to a two syllable word myr-iad. This patterning will need guidance for clarification and understanding. Repetition is another acoustic element within this poem. The beginning alliterated consonant
is sprinkled throughout the stanzas as well as the long
sound. Dunbar's syntactical choices make the poem an easy read, using end-stopped lines, active voice, and overall consistency in tense and sentence structure. Hopefully, through the use of our analyzing questions as a scaffold, my students will be able to say, "oh, yeah. I see it."
It might also be noted that the substance of this poem reminds us of the Negro spiritual, a song similar to gospel music, so often heard during the age of slavery in our country. These songs told the story pain or work or hope. It might be of some use to listen to a song such as
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"
found at the website http://www.songbirdofswing.com/the_songs/Swing_Low/. to hear the tone, the soul, the anguish, the pride and ultimate hope of the Negro slave.
Taken in another light, this mask can take on a completely different meaning if considered as a universal mask anyone might wear. My students would be equally open to accepting this explanation as it might be a more "real," tangible, and plausible explanation in their lives. Kids who are bullied often wear a mask, a husband who loses his job and is afraid to tell his wife, a teenage girl who becomes pregnant and hides it from her boyfriend or family, a child who is abused; all of these people wear masks, have hearts that bleed, tears that are hidden, sighs that are suppressed, and cries that speak to torture but must be suppressed. The insights my students will be brought to notice contextually in this poem are also shrouded with sound and will be exposed through the use of parts of our analysis sheets.
Our last experience with this poem will be an attempt at practicing
the found poem.
A found poem requires that we begin with any poem; in this case,
We Wear the Mask.
Next we eliminate lines one, three, five, seven, etc. What we are left with are lines two, four, six, eight, etc. We must now go back and replaced the removed line with thoughts of our own trying to continue with the same meter. Once this part is complete, we must go back and eliminate lines two, four, six, eight, etc. and replace them as well. In other words my students start from someone's poem, turn it into a shared poem, and finally take ownership of the entire poem. Again, we use a scaffolding mechanism as our strategy to develop a significant poem using an accomplished poet's poem and turning it into one we can be proud to call our own.