Reading

The Mask by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou adapts Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1896 poem “We Wear the Mask” in this spoken-word poem.
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At a Glance

Reading

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History
  • Racism

Maya Angelou adapted the 1896 poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask,” in the following spoken-word poem.

 


 

We wear the mask that grins and lies.

It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes.

This debt we pay to human guile

With torn and bleeding hearts . . .

We smile and mouth the myriad subtleties.

Why should the world think otherwise

In counting all our tears and sighs.

Nay let them only see us while

We wear the mask.

We smile but oh my God

Our tears to thee from tortured souls arise

And we sing Oh Baby doll, now we sing . . .

The clay is vile beneath our feet

And long the mile

But let the world think otherwise.

We wear the mask.

When I think about myself

I almost laugh myself to death.

My life has been one great big joke!

A dance that’s walked a song that’s spoke.

I laugh so hard HA! HA! I almos’ choke

When I think about myself.

Seventy years in these folks’ world

The child I works for calls me girl

I say “HA! HA! HA! Yes ma’am!”

For workin’s sake

I’m too proud to bend and

Too poor to break

So . . . I laugh! Until my stomach ache

When I think about myself.

My folks can make me split my side

I laugh so hard, HA! HA! I nearly died

The tales they tell sound just like lying

They grow the fruit but eat the rind.

Hmm huh! I laugh uhuh huh huh . . .

Until I start to cry when I think about myself

And my folks and the children.

My fathers sit on benches,

Their flesh count every plank,

The slats leave dents of darkness

Deep in their withered flank.

And they gnarled like broken candles,

All waxed and burned profound.

They say, but sugar, it was our submission

that made your world go round.

There in those pleated faces

I see the auction block

The chains and slavery’s coffles

The whip and lash and stock.

My fathers speak in voices

That shred my fact and sound

They say, but sugar, it was our submission

that made your world go round.

They laugh to conceal their crying,

They shuffle through their dreams

They stepped ’n fetched a country

And wrote the blues in screams.

I understand their meaning,

It could an did derive

From living on the edge of death

They kept my race alive

By wearing the mask! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! 1

  • 1Spoken-word poem adapted from “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1896). Used with permission from Caged Bird Legacy, LLC. MayaAngelou.com.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History and Ourselves, “The Mask by Maya Angelou,” last updated May 2, 2022. 

This reading contains text not authored by Facing History and Ourselves. See footnotes for source information.

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