We Wear The Mask

In this poem, Paul Laurence Dunbar reflects on the experience of African Americans in post-Civil War America and the universal human behavior of hiding an aspect of ourselves.
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At a Glance



English — US


  • English & Language Arts
  • History
  • Racism

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile 1 ;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad 2 subtleties 3

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 4

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world think other-wise,

We wear the mask!

This poem is also available as a PDF.

Poet Maya Angelou adapted Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask" in a spoken-word poem.

  • 1guile : deceitful, sly.
  • 2myriad : many.
  • 3subtleties : meanings; can be meanings that are difficult to define.
  • 4vile : gross, immoral.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History and Ourselves, “We Wear The Mask,” 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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