We Wear The Mask | Facing History & Ourselves

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

reading copy


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 & Ourselves, “We Wear The Mask,” last updated May 2, 2022. 

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

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