[T]he poem that most often moves readers of the 1970s to credit him with racial fire: 'We Wear the Mask." Significantly an early poem, it is spoken by black people and for black people. Too well known to demand full quotation here, it nevertheless has features that should be mentioned. In the opening lines, for example—"We wear the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes"--Dunbar is careful to show that the mask is grinning, not the black man. Although the poet's use of the word "lies" is probably simple, it might not be. If the mask is lying to the wearer, the anguish of the black man shown in "Vagrants" is brought into play. If the mask is lying to white people, the psychology later explored by Ralph Ellison's Dr. Bledsoe and the grandfather and the black physician in Invisible Man enters the poem. The hiding of cheeks and eyes is the concealment of those features that reveal tears and that give quality to smiles. To be blinded to these parts of a person's countenance is to be blinded to his special humanity--which Langston Hughes considered artfully in writing his well-known poem "Minstrel Man." Skipping to the end of the stanza, where Dunbar says that black people "mouth with myriad subtleties," one notes the precise usage of the verb "mouth," which intensifies the mask theme by suggesting pretense, affectation, grimacing, and distortion of one's genuine features. In attributing to these actions "myriad subtleties," Dunbar indirectly commends the imaginative creativity that black people have been forced either to waste or to narrow because of the vagaries of white racism.
The wealth of implication in only three lines of this poem indicates what a thorough examination of it ought to yield. It must suffice here to make two more observations. By indicating in the second stanza that the world would be "overwise" in sympathetically enumerating the miseries of black people, Dunbar recognizes that individuals risk their psychological equilibrium in immersing themselves too long or too deeply in the catastrophes of others. In short, they know too much for their own good. And when that unwanted knowledge brings guilt, real or assumed, for the almost irremediable ills of victimized millions, the wisdom of sympathetic involvement diminishes. Although Dunbar questions the prudence of such commitment, he sees the trap that white bigots have set for themselves: they continue dreaming. Let them dream, concludes the poet, knowing that dreamers have only two destinies: they either die in their sleep or they wake up. And when these wake up, they will face what William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe foresaw in mystical terms as the destruction of the mind.
From "Racial Fire in the Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar" in A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Jay Martin. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Jay Martin.