The Masks We Wear: Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Human Condition

Recently, I posted a blog with one of my favorite quotes about literature which states that, “Literature [is] the laboratory of the human condition.”1 How often I’m reminded of just how true that is! Last night I was reading some selected poems from three late American poets who each reflected various “experiments” into what it means to be human, to be free, to be true. And what a contrast was held within the perspectives! These three poets were Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.  

Perhaps the contrast that I’ve been thinking through the most were in the similarities I perceived between Whitman and Dickinson juxtaposed against Dunbar. Of course, all three echoed a similar theme of freedom, whether of personal expression, from societal norms, or from oppression and suffering. However, whereas the two former writers seemed to find their freedom in the autonomous, in having none greater than one’s self, and in being free from the bondage of the past, the later gently, yet tangibly, permeated a hope that flowed from the past; an upward, outward, and forward focused gaze, skeptical of this present age, skeptical of the presented self, and although teetering on an edge of despair still able to sing. This is a reading of this life that resonates with me far more than the other two. 

In a slightly different, yet still interconnected vein, “We Wear the Mask” by Dunbar was hands-down my favorite work of that varied collection. It’s very short, so here it is in full:

   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!

What a different picture Dunbar sees than the others, particularly Whitman who, in a strange blend of optimistically charged spiritual humanism, claims that every aspect of this life is to be praised, even that greatest of enemies is nothing more than the “bitter hug of our mortality.” Nothing to fear, nothing worthy of lasting lament. Oh how Dunbar objects! After my first read of “We Wear the Mask,” I simply had to read it again! Slowly, carefully, methodically. Do I understand you Dunbar? I think I do. If nothing else, I feel you. Having spent over a decade working as a first responder, I’ve often felt that I get to see a world that is kept hidden behind a veil in our current societal moment. Behind the glitter and the glam of so much of the materialistic flare that radiates out from our tireless search for our “best lives now”, lies this unseen world of our torn and bleeding hearts, this world of our suffering, our pain, our tragedy, and ultimately of our deaths found within this vile clay. But still we sing. Still we dream. Should we? I do. And yet, I can’t help but wonder, what does this reveal about our condition? What does it mean? What do we mean? Just what happens when we take off the mask? I have much to learn, yet one thing I’ve come to know, without the mask, death looks nothing like a hug. Maybe that’s why we like wearing it so much?


1. Kevin Vanhoozer, “4 Reasons Pastor-Theologians Should Read Fiction,” The Gospel Coalition, November 12, 2015,  

Photo credit: DANNY G on Unsplash

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