Paul Laurence Dunbar published “We Wear the Mask” in 1895 as part of his second collection of verse, titled Majors and Minors. As indication of the profundity of the themes at work in the poem, the poem’s elevated to status of classic metaphor for the African-American experience may never have happened were it not for a white literary critic.
Harper’s Weekly was the most widely read literal journal in America and William Dean Howells one of its most influential critics. Within two years of a glowing review of his verse by Howells in the magazine, Dunbar was embarking upon England for a six month tour to recite not just “We Wear the Mask” but essentially putting on a performance with his wildly popular black dialect poems offering his audience insight into the days of slavery. Howell’s had helped to turn Dunbar into an international celebrity.
Today, Dunbar is almost exclusively known for “We Wear the Mask.” Perhaps its power to transcend dialect verse which was such a crowd-pleaser a century ago has to do with greater universality of struggling with identity and the greater awareness of just how many people have had to live their lives wearing a mask to disguise their authentic self from a judgmental world. The poem’s theme of the emotional toll that comes with being forced to present an appealing and contented front found its first highly receptive audience among the Harlem Renaissance movement. As more and more movements creating awareness of other huge chunks of the population whose lives were forced into the shadows come forward, “We Wear the Mask” no longer became a poem about the African-American experience and is now viewed as a universal metaphor for oppression of identity.