“We Wear the Mask”

I’ve been thinking of today’s poem, “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, almost daily since masks became a must-have accessory. This poem is about the pain Black Americans hid under a mask of happiness during the post Civil War era. Today we wear physical masks to protect ourselves and each other from getting the virus, but don’t we also sometimes wear the other mask Dunbar writes about to hide our true feelings?

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!

Paul Laurence Dunbar

What masks do you wear? What are you protecting yourself from? When and for whom do you take off your mask?

In need of a mask? My neighbor will make you a gorgeous mask in exchange for a small act of kindness. Check out her new smallkindnesses.club website (inspired in part by the “Small Kindnesses” poem she read on this blog).


“We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, from The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Copyrighted material used for educational or therapeutic purposes.

Photo credit: lrcsda.com


  1. So interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot about masks lately. I really hate face masks: they are uncomfortable; I can’t breathe well when wearing one; my glasses fog up and I can’t see well; it’s hard to talk and to be heard; it’s difficult to recognize people. I find face masks to be physically painful. But I always wear one in public these days — to protect myself and others and to be a good citizen.

    In many ways, the same grievances and rationale also apply to the intangible/psychological/emotional masks we all wear described in this poem. If all our psychological masks were to be turned into tangible, physical ones, how many real/actual faces would we really see in any given day? Probably very few, if any at all. In some cases perhaps that is a good thing, for one or both parties (the masked and the viewer). In other cases, not so much.

    Not really sure if or how I should remove psychological masks moving forward, but C19 will definitely make me more aware of my psychological masks and their potential impact (on me and those around me) in the months ahead…..


    1. Hi Gary, I hear you about the physical masks and share many of your frustrations including the glasses fogging up (a nuisance and dangerous when walking on uneven city sidewalks!). This transition to mask wearing reminds me of when we started biking with helmets, or even further back, when we started wearing seat belts. Both felt so strange at first, and now it feels odd to go without either. Interesting what you write about the psychological masks and how many real faces we would see in a given day. I wonder if our masks go on and off hundreds of times throughout the day (or even one conversation) depending on how safe we feel vs. the need we feel for some protection. No wonder some interactions leave us feeling exhausted!


  2. A tough poem… It makes me think of Brene Brown’s TED talks on vulnerability and how powerful vulnerability can be. I tend to be a very transparent and straightforward person but have been warned that showing vulnerability (especially in professional setting) can hurt me. So far, however, it has proven the opposite – perhaps I am lucky with the people I have been surrounded by. I cherish the honest connections with others, though we all inevitably find ourselves hiding certain emotions from time to time.


    1. Hi Z, Thanks for your comments. I think, in general, people appreciate honesty and authenticity, and can quickly sense when someone’s not being real. I’m not surprised that you’re getting positive reactions to showing some vulnerability – we crave that real connection, at least I do!


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