A great deal of African American literature focuses on the experience of slavery as opposed to the presumptions of slavery. Many of the white people during the time of slavery operated under the assumption that the ‘inferior, savage’ black people were being protected and provided for while simultaneously being given the opportunity to be useful and productive. This impression was fueled by the forced smiling faces of the black people as they worked, sometimes under threat, by their masters during slavery and then continued to wear these ‘masked’ faces in their service to white people as a means of retaining their jobs. Only by appearing friendly, helpful and eager to serve was a black person capable of attaining a higher position in the workplace or a better wage. “It is fear which creates the mask, and fear which keeps it in place. The mask is hiding our true and most beautiful self from both ourselves and from the world” (Neta, 2008). Paul Lawrence Dunbar expresses all of these elements of the mask – that it serves to protect and to hide – in his poem “We Wear the Mask,” but the sentiments are also apparent in other works such as Claude McKay’s poem “Harlem Dancer.”
In Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask”, he illustrates the various ways in which black people hide their true selves from the public behind a smile. However, the truth of the black existence is one of near constant pain and suffering. This is made clear from his first line, “We wear the mask that grins and lies / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes” (1-2). In this, Dunbar illustrates the requirement for black people to hide their faces in order to grin, but also the fear they feel if they should remove this mask in the wrong company. In serving the white man, black people must hide their “torn and bleeding hearts” (4) and “all our tears and sighs” (7) if they wish to discover any form of success in life. However, the mask is also seen as a source of pride in that the black man has something that the white man can’t share. “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” (Dunbar 6-9). Rather than allowing the white man to gloat in the black man’s suffering, Dunbar suggests that the mask can be used as a means of defying the white man’s wishes. Rather than allowing the white man to see them suffer, they wear the mask that enables them to get along while suffering all the same.
Claude McKay adopts this same concept of a mask to hide the inner self in “The Harlem Dancer.” In this poem, he tells the story of an exotic dancer performing in front of a rowdy group of young men and the prostitutes they’ve hired. He provides highly sensual details regarding the scene before him. He talks about how the boys applauded the woman’s “perfect, half-clothed body” (2) and emphasizes her talent as he talks about her voice “like the sound of blended flutes” (3). Despite the presumably disorderly conduct of the crowd, he indicates the woman remains calm and collected, focused on her performance through lines such as “She sang and danced on gracefully and calm / The light gauze hanging loose about her form” (5-6). While he is capable of appreciating her beauty and skill, comparing her to a graceful palm, proud and strong in its environment, the boys are only able to focus on one element of her being. Describing them as “wine-flushed,” McKay makes this picture of a strong, beautiful and talented black woman ugly by mentioning how these boys were “tossing coins in praise / the wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls, / devoured her with their eager, passionate gaze” (10-12). Although she is the center of attention and is managing to provide an entertaining performance capable of instilling McKay with a sense of her talent and her strength, McKay manages to illustrate the same sense of a mask as a necessary element of black survival by mentioning within the last two lines how the woman’s eyes reveal that “her self was not in that strange place” (14). Her only protection from the harshness of the world she is forced to try to survive in is to escape behind her mask. Rather than crying though, McKay suggests that behind the mask, the woman has retreated to some other place, perhaps somewhere white boys do not throw coins at her feet and she is permitted to hold her head high in appropriate clothing and be appreciated for the magnificent person she is.
In both of these poems, it becomes clear that the mask is an essential element of the black persona within the white-dominated world. It serves to protect and hide the individual while providing them with an element of pride and position within their own social circles. Dunbar illustrates how the mask enables the black man to present an attractive and benign appearance to their white ‘superiors’, thus reducing their perceived threat and protecting them. At the same time, he shows how the mask enables the individual to hide their pain and suffering from these same white people, thus protecting their inner identity and retaining a sense of pride and strength in the face of difficulty. These same sentiments are found in McKay’s poem as the Harlem dancer presents a friendly and entertaining image for her white audience, smiling and singing regardless of what they do or how scantily she is clothed, yet is obviously suffering from shame at receiving coins tossed derisively at her feet and lewd comments assaulting her ears. However, as her eyes betray, this outer image performing for the audience is nothing more than another mask, hiding the true self within, enabling her to protect her pride and self-worth. This concept of the mask as a protection and a hiding place is a consistent theme through much of this genre of literature.
Dunbar, Paul Lawrence. “We Wear the Mask.”
McKay, Claude. “The Harlem Dancer.”
Neta, Nisandeh. “Facing Fear by Hiding Behind Masks.” Authentic Self. (2008). Web.