We Wear Masks
Everyone wishes to be accepted and feel a sense of belongingness in life. Experience tells us that the quickest and most humanly thing to do is to hide our true selves, our true emotions and our true feelings and hide behind a disguise or camouflage. In this poem, the mask is used as a metaphor for the psychological facade that we create to conceal our true feelings. In the poem, the mask grins and smiles but underneath, the person sighs and cries. The face beneath the mask is crying out in desperation or disappointment but wears a mask in order to feel accepted and to avoid humiliation.
These are all very true in almost all aspects and all levels of our relationships, be it with our families, loved ones, friends, classmates, neighbors etc. In the family, we can not help sibling rivalries, but often, we can not show our disappointment or desperation or even envy. And so, we put on a facade that displays an acceptable outward emotion. In our loved ones, how often do we feel left out or feel a sense of discontent? And how do we let the other know our true feelings? Throughout literature, one discovers that the themes or motif of masks is a reoccurring subject.
A person may appear one way on the outside but may be feeling the total opposite on the inside. He may be masking his true emotions with a false appearance. In this poem, we are told this message. This poem has its historical roots in the experience the African-American slaves of the early United States. They are our prime examples of how emotions can be repressed. History tells us that they were treated with such disrespect and humiliation that that they have to hide their true feelings in a society that repressed them that is why it is understandable why they would mask their true thoughts and their emotions.
They were forced to speak and act in certain ways in order to make their lives easier. How they acted was dictated for them by the society at that time and had severe repercussions for not following the norm. Their lives had, to a point, been taken away from them. But, there were some things that could never be taken away from them: their inner strength and their spirituality. No matter how a slave was treated, how hard he had to work, or how little he had, he did have total control of his own thoughts and beliefs. Those things could never be taken from him.
This poem cries out with the hurt that African-Americans, throughout history, suffered with. To be able to endure this daily persecution, these people had to draw on their inner strength. When Dunbar wrote, “With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,” it is obvious of the agony felt and of how a smile is sometimes worn in order to camouflage one’s true emotions. A deep, religious faith was a saving grace to these people as a whole. One’s spirituality can carry them through even the most dreadful situations. This idea is evident when Dunbar penned the lines, “we smile, but, O great Christ, our cries.
To thee from tortured souls arise. ” When all else had failed, slaves could pray and feel that God had heard them. At last, their cries would be heard, their prayers answered, and their hearts relieved. The poem likewise may be viewed as an expression of Dunbar’s deep feelings as an oppressed black but it also expresses a paradox. Although, not even once did it mention racial prejudice but the central issues is admittedly that of racial prejudice. In other words the poem itself wears mask because it hides its central issue.
It openly shows Dunbar’s feelings of a frustrated black all through out the poem. It doffs all pretense and imposture. The paradox is displayed in that the poem that conceals everything also reveals everything at one and the same time. A universal view may also be culled form the poem and it can be read in a universal voice that is raceless or ageless rather than a specific human being or human race. In the latter case, the general language could apply to anyone of any race who hides his or her feelings to get by in the world.
In other words, since Dunbar avoids specifically mentioning blacks and their suffering, the poem could stand as a lament on behalf of all people forced to wear a “mask”–the unwed unwanted pregnancy hidden from the parents and society or children abused but still apparently defensively humors the abusive parent. Who among us has not worn his or her mask at some point in his or her life? We wear mask for many different reasons but mostly to hide our true self from society. In the poem, Dunbar tells us that it is our prerogative to wear mask.
Some may even argue that Dunbar encourages the wearing of masks as the central theme of the poem. The message portrayed by Dunbar is that it is one’s self right to wear a mask as they so choose. In the fist stanza, Dunbar immediately shows how strongly he feels about the mask that we wear. Accordingly, mask allows us to grin and lie while on the inside we are hiding how we truly feel. It hides our cheeks and shading our eyes and our mouth with myriad of subtleties in order to hide what we truly feel.
In the next lines, Dunbar tells us that we hide our true emotion in order to be guile. Guile is being deceitful to others in our daily quest. This is so because of the concealment that we employ towards another thereby deceiving others of the truth. The poem goes on by saying that we also conceal our hurt by showing that we smile. The truth that deep inside we may hurt deeply but because we are wearing our mask we still smile. So no matter how bad we do hurt, out of habit we feel obligated to put on a mask for everyone else. Our words also hide our true feelings.
We tell lies that convince people around us of the masks that we wear and complement what it appears on the outside. Dunbar ends the stanza by implying that not only do we lie with our smiles but our mouth lies through the smile with myriad and subtle words. The poem then goes on further by showing that we have a right to wear masks. This is reinforce by the subtle allusion that we should wear our mask everyday and take it off for no one. We learn to that it is Dunbar beliefs that we should not have to let the world know all our tears and sighs.
He says that the world should be over-wise to our true feelings. There is a seeming premise that we are not harming a soul by the mask we wear. I believe he might feel this way because in his personal life he may have had something to hide from the world. Authors seem to draw their works from true experience. In the final stanza Dunbar tells us also of the consequence to our soul that the mask has brought upon. He tells us that there is a price that we pay for wearing our mask and that is our souls cry out to God where we can not wear masks.
In the presence of God we cannot hide our true feelings. Dunbar portrays a soul in an agony crying out to God because it is only at the sight of God that our masks fall off and all that pent up emotions come to fore and show their true being. As one reads on, the poem takes him deeper and finds him reflecting on a deeper meaning of the words of the poem. We can all relate to the words used in the poem. From my own personal experience, I find myself agreeing with Dunbar. We really wear mask almost without even thinking about it.
It has become a natural routine. The world has come to a point where we are forced to wear mask to get along. If we do not wear mask and show our true feelings we might be branded us insensitive prick. There is good and bad in the reason why we wear mask. Sometimes we can even justify its necessity. Although I should say that we should not be content with wearing mask all the time. It is not always healthy to hide ones true self and feelings, especially if they are painful.
I also feel that if you continually wear your mask, you will soon lose touch of who you really are. I think the key word here is to learn when to wear mask and when to take it off. Being acceptable in society and act in an acceptable behavior is a positive indication of when to wear mask. Our society has through out human existence has come up with norms of how to conduct ourselves in society. That is why we cannot just say or express our feelings the way we wanted to because it may be offensive and unacceptable in the society.
We may be outcast if we do not conform to the accepted standards of human behavior. Our education and the public show us to behave in certain way because it is a human trait that we want to belong and be accepted. There are certain groupings that adopt certain norms and one who wants to belong to that group must adapt to that norm.
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