151 Introduction to the Texts

Paul Laurence Dunbar is a highly respected figure in the African-American culture across the United States. Being one of the first influential poets of the African-American race, his work was very powerful and touched many enslaved African-Americans at the time. One of his most popular works was titled We Wear the Mask. Precisely, he is referring to the detached face that so many African Slaves felt necessary to wear in front of their Masters or Owners, as well as how many people must put up a front to others. This was sort of a submissive survival tactic they used to avoid any problems with their Masters and Owners. We Wear the Mask is sometimes referred to as a “muted protest” poem because it is vaguely implied and never openly stated what the message is.

We Wear the Mask is frequently discussed in connection with another poem of Dunbar’s, entitled Sympathy. The poem Sympathy relates the terrible life of being enslaved and oppressed with the bird being trapped in a cage. He expresses in the poem how a bird flaps its wings and sings, reaching out for a hope that it wants, but beating itself down at the same time. Some may see this action as a call to what is wrong–that the singing of the bird is to call attention to the pain it feels as well as sharing its voice for the world to hear and hope that someone will notice its pain and set it free.

Many readers may look to works of Phillis Wheatley to draw connections on the messages that Dunbar creates through his poetry.

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Introduction to the Texts by Timothy Robbins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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