I’ve always appreciated Paul Laurence Dunbar. He is the first poet to have written in both standard English and black vernacular. From his poem “Sympathy” Maya Angelou found the title of the first book I read of hers, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” Dunbar died in 1906 before the Harlem Renaissance, but was the most celebrated black poet as America entered the early 1900’s. He died young, at age 33. Still his work has influenced so many writers and is still influencing us.
I’m sharing a poem by him, one to honor him and in remembrance. Two, I think this piece is timeless in how it addresses a recent phenomenon. About two years ago, in class we were asked to write papers on research exploring how people create alternate personas and realities for online social networks. The study was called “Facebook Envy.” Today, I recalled that assignment while reading about Dunbar and some of his poems.
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 over-wise,
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!