Text of the Poem

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!


  1. This line particularly evokes images of slavery. The "clay” is the earth enslaved peoples had to tend to, and the singing alludes to the spirituals that were sung.

    — Allegra Keys, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. This is where the reader learns who the speaker is masking themselves for: the world. If one didn’t already have any historical context of the poem, this is where one could ask themselves, "What was a group of people whose suffering was overlooked in 1895?” That, in combination with the race of Dunbar, should lead readers to understand that the speaker is referring to Black people.

    — Allegra Keys, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of "guile” is "deceitful: cunning: duplicity.” Thus, this line insinuates that the ability to fake it is the "debt” of humanity and, therefore, unpayable.

    — Allegra Keys, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. The speaker uses "we” to establish that this poem is speaking from the perspective of the Black collective.

    — Allegra Keys, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. In this first line, the speaker introduces the reader to the extended and multidimensional metaphor of "the mask.” Most obviously, "the mask” represents the person the Black collective must represent to a post-Civil War society. The metaphor could also allude to the language of this poem, for Dunbar typically used Black dialect in his work and refrains from it in this poem.

    — Allegra Keys, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. Along with line 15, this line is the only break in the iambic tetrameter, where all the other lines are eight syllables.

    — Allegra Keys, Owl Eyes Editor