Sunday, April 13, 2014

Paul Lawrence Dunbar - Poetry

Another new poet (to me) and a poem that I've never read before.  The blurb in the books says that Dunbar was the descendant of slaves.  This poem was written in 1896, to give you some context for the racial atmosphere that he was working against.

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 overwise,
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 soul 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.

Very powerful.  I'm reminded of the Ellison book, 'The Invisible Man', in which the protagonist is unseen by the white people around him.  Or only seen as a category, the black man, instead of as a real, individual person.
But that isn't quite on point.  The idea here is that the former slaves and their children must keep a mask on to hide what is really going on in their lives.  They don't want to share the misery that is their lot, doubtlessly to avoid even more misery.
In some ways, this is a broad, human condition.  I don't want to devalue the terrible conditions of Jim Crow and racism of the past, but virtually everyone can appreciate the thoughts of the last stanza.  We smile, even though our soul is crying.  We sing, even through the vile and exhausting times.  And we all wear that mask at times, not letting others see the pain.
A very powerful poem.

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