We Wear the Mask Comprehension

We Wear The Mask


In “We Wear the Mask”, which was published in 1896, Paul Laurence Dunbar describes having to wear a false mask of “grins and lies” in an oppressive and prejudiced society so he could disguise the awful “tears and sighs” he felt inside.

Although it is not mentioned explicitly in the poem, it is quite clear that the speaker could be referring to the terrible racism in America. For example, Dunbar’s parents were emancipated from slavery less than ten years before he was born in 1872. He was the only African-American student in his high school so he fully understood the impact of having to hide his true feelings from his friends in order to survive in a world that was unable to sympathise with his situation.

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!

Dictionary Work

When you are studying any text, you should look up any unfamiliar words or phrases because it will help your understanding of the story. An online dictionary, such as dictionary.com, can help.

Research the following words: shade, debt, guile, myriad, subtlety, wise, clay, vile and tortured.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What is a mask and why do people wear them?
  2. Look at the opening line. What expressions are on the mask the speaker says that they wear?
  3. Have you ever experienced a time when you felt the need to pretend to be happy and forced yourself to smile?
  4. Suggest why the speaker wants to cover their “cheeks” and “eyes”. In other words, what emotions are they trying to hide?
  5. The word “guile” is defined as clever deception. How does line three suggest the speaker is always trying to hide their true feelings?
  6. What does the fourth line reveal about the speaker’s emotions?
  7. The fifth line describes the “myriad subtleties” the speaker uses to disguise their feelings. What range of methods do people use to lie, especially when they feel hurt but are trying their best to fit in?
  8. Look at the opening of the second verse. Does the speaker really think the “world” does not need to know about their “tears and sighs”?
  9. Notice how the speaker refers to “our tears and sighs”. How does the inclusive pronoun “our” suggest many people face the same terrible predicament as the speaker?
  10. Who does the speaker pray to in the third verse?
  11. Similar to question five, how does the image of “tortured souls” suggest the speaker constantly experiences difficulty in their life.
  12. Suggest reasons why the “clay is vile”.
  13. How does the final line and the repetition of “we wear the mask” suggest the strength and defiance of the speaker in the hostile world they live?

Maya Angelou performs “We Wear the Mask”

The following YouTube video contains a reading of Dunbar’s poem by the famous American writer, Maya Angelou. Her performance begins at 1:05.

[eh_optimize_youtube_embed video=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HLol9InMlc”]

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