Comparative Analysis Of Dunbar’s We Wear The Mask And Mckay’s America

Poetry is a genre of literature which uses a combination of delicate structure, words and rhythm. Poems are a tool to express one’s feelings, thoughts, and even deepest secrets. Moreover, poems can also expose the readers to different approaches and feelings of people from different or unfamiliar backgrounds, cultures and even centuries. In the late 19th century, one of the greatest first black American poets, Paul Laurence Dunbar, received recognition in the world of poetry, which opened the doorway to many other black poets and artists to come in the future. One of his most recognized poems is “We Wear the Mask.” According to Enotes poem analysis, this poem demonstrates the struggles of black Americans in post-Civil war time (Post 1865) in the United States. The poem focuses on the metaphorical “mask” of happiness and contentment that African Americans were forced to wear in the presence of the white society who controlled the United States, while struggling under racism and segregation. Another poem that shares similar values to “We Wear the Mask” is “America” by Claude McKay. Later after Dunbar, McKay flourished as a poet during the Harlem Renaissance. During this time, McKay’s poems challenged white authority. By using personification, metaphors, and original diction, “America” by McKay is describing his feelings towards America. Despite the difficulties that America shoves in his way, he reluctantly loves his country. In this essay, I will discuss the differences and similarities of “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar and “America” by Claude McKay. Both poems conduct a different message due to Dunbar’s and McKay’s different backgrounds. However, the main factor which makes both poems similar is that both poets have faced the struggle of being a black person in a white dominant country.

Paul Laurence Dunbar is one of the first African American poets to gain national recognition. According to the website “Poets,” Dunbar became well known for his dialectic verse in collections such as “Majors and Minors” (1895) and “Lyrics of Lowly Life” (1896). However, the dialectic poems constitute only a small portion of Dunbar’s canon, which consist with novels, short stories, essays, and many poems. In its entirety, Dunbar’s literary work is recognized as an impressive representation of black lives during the early 20th century in America. Dunbar was born in 1872 to a family of freed slaves in Kentucky. Even after America has officially abolished slavery, the freed slaves were still precarious and significant challenges were still ahead for them at this era. Because Dunbar lived under these conditions and challenges, they had a tremendous effect on his artistic creations.   

In his poem “We Wear the Mask,” Dunbar expresses his emotions towards the racial status of his time. He discusses the deception, hypocrisy, and the fact that black Americans often end up emitting satisfaction to their surroundings with their social circumstances. However, this mask is just a bunch of lies trying to cover up the fact that they were feeling rotten inside and emotionally damaged. The poem starts with “We wear the mask that grins and lies, it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes” (Dunbar 1, 2). The poet uses the “mask” as a symbol for the lies that hide the true identity of those who wear it. This mask hides the parts of the face that can uncover people’s emotions. The significance of this line is that black Americans used to put on this mask to help them get through their lives and hide the despair and suffering in front of the white society who ruled America at that time. Black Americans did not want to show their surroundings their pain because they felt judged and vulnerable if they did so. It seems as Dunbar wrote this poem as a subtle prayer as demonstrated in the poem, “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries to thee from tortured souls arise” (Dunbar 10, 11). Although Dunbar mentioned already before this sentence that he and his community are suffering, it is important for him to mention that to god. It seems that they have worn the mask so much and for so long where they reached a state where Dunbar is afraid that even god cannot see beneath the mask. However, with all the suffering they have experienced, Dunbar states, “nay, let them only see us, while we wear the mask” (Dunbar 8, 9). He does not want to show the white society who oppresses him, the pain he had experienced. He strengthens by the end of the poem where he says, “But let the world dream otherwise we wear the mask!” (Dunbar 14, 15). The message that Dunbar tries to deliver by writing these words is that they will not break in front of their oppressors and they will not let the oppressors taste victory. The mask is a symbol for their war in racism and segregation.

Although Claude McKay’s poem “America” shares some similar values with the poem “We Wear the Mask,” his message and theme are different. In his poem, McKay is describing his feelings towards America. Despite the difficulties that America had put in his way, he reluctantly loves his new home. According to the website “My Black History,” unlike Dunbar, Claude McKay was born in 1889 in Jamaica and migrated later to the US. McKay chose to move to America, and he does not have the experience of growing up in a freed black slaves’ house. The diction McKay used in his first sentence allows the reader to sense the despair as he states, “Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, and sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth” (McKay 1, 2).  This is how he felt when he first moved to America because of the prejudice and racism. He personifies America as a woman, making it seem as if she is a mother, feeding him 'bread of bitterness'. He is somewhat dependent on America even when it continuously puts him down. Although McKay uses these negative words, he continues by saying “Her vigor flows like tides into my blood, giving me strength erect against her hate” (McKay 6, 7). Although the bitterness within his relationship with his country, McKay gets his strength and motivation by America. McKay is continuously contrasting in almost every line between the negative and positive traits of his country. McKay signified that the strength he gets and that drives him, is from exactly what pulls him down. This prospering country boldly gives a man strength while also being the source behind his struggles.  

Although Dunbar and McKay grew in different places, they both share a common struggle of living as black people in a country dominant by white society. Both lived in an era that has just officially abolished slavery. However, the fact that slavery has “officially” ended did not mean that black American in the U.S were treated properly by their fellow neighbors in the country. There was still racist attitude by many white Americans that supported segregation and desired to preserve the financial gap between black Americans and them. Black people struggled to gain education, find work, develop themselves, and blend in the society outside of their own black community. According to the article of Economic History Association “African Americans in the Twentieth Century” by Thomas N. Maloney, the author states, “economic and demographic characteristics of African Americans at the end of the nineteenth century were not that different from what they had been in the mid-1800s” (Maloney). The official “label” of slavery has been removed but nothing had changed in reality. According to the article, the black Americans who worked as farmers or farm labor were fifty percent black American men and thirty-five percent black American women of the entire black population. While the ratio for the white American society was about one-third of men and about eight percent of women. Many black Americans were not educated or skilled, therefore they could not get jobs with better income to improve their financial status. Even if they could, there was someone awaits to block their path. That is what McKay and Dunbar feel, they want to express and to develop themselves freely without chains holding them back. But these chains are inevitable and an integral part of their lives.

In order to analyze poems, we need to understand the poets. Both McKay and Dunbar have differences in their perspective because of their different backgrounds. Because of that, only McKay can see the potential and the beauty of America among all of that negativity. However, with all of these differences, they both share a major common factor that influence their lives, which is being black people living in a white society. That is why they share the same struggles which is a tremendous part of their and many other black people’s lives.

Works Cited

  • “Paul Laurenc Dunbar,” Poets,
  • Y9kkX1spcv7jgsdzYPhOHJjirEIs79jPu5reNI_toIN0aAl-XEALw_wcB
  • Dunbar, Paul, Laurence. “We Wear the Mask,” COMPACT Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing, 9th Edition. Eds. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stepfen R. Mandell. Cengage, 2016.
  • Mckay, Claude. “America,” COMPACT Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing, 9th     Edition. Eds. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stepfen R. Mandell. Cengage, 2016.
  • Maloney, N. Thomas, “African Americans in the Twentieth Century,” Economic History Association, January 14, 2002.
  • “Claude McKay,” My Black History.
  • “We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar – Analysis,” Enotes, 2019.
16 December 2021
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