I used to teach high school students a Paul Lawrence Dunbar poem, “We Wear the Mask.” What brought this poem back to me? My two Georgia granddaughters decided to try their face painting crayons one rainy day. It always seems the Lord uses these wee ones to give me some spiritual insights whenever I visit.
Austyn Grace told me this artistic endeavor of hers was the burning bush. Guess what book of the Bible her parents are currently reading in their nightly Bible stories with the girls? She assured me that although the bush never burned up, these crayons would wash off! Good to know!
Willingly, the two-year-old let her artistic older sister start a new work of art. Beyond the humor, I was rethinking Dunbar’s words about masking ourselves from others.
“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.”
Guilty, I thought. “Myriad subtleties” color too many conversations I have with others. Not that we should not practice discernment, but we can stay very vague when we truly need help.
As this two-year-old illustrates, it’s very easy to get into the false face making. Taking her cue from her older sister, Taylor Faith got into the whole experience amazingly fast.
Consider the second stanza of Dunbar’s poem:
“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.”
The fun of my granddaughters’ experiment is a far cry from the anguish Dunbar expressed in his poem. As the son of slaves, he had the courage to write about the facade the black man wore to whites, and in some ways, wore to his own. Who dared speak of the atrocities of slavery or the second-class citizenship that continued long after the Emancipation Proclamation? Yet, Dunbar never identifies his race within the poem. The poem itself wears a mask.
In a broader social sense, the poem speaks to the out-of-wedlock woman who carries a child, to the soldier who writes home from Afghanistan that things are going well, the bullied elementary child whose parents continue to push the child to join in with others, or the abused college student who never speaks his or her painful truths.
Dave and I pray daily for our children and grandchildren, for they will learn all too soon that Dunbar’s poem speaks truth to all our lives.
When frustrated, hurt, or disappointed, the girls will cry or act out when at home. But put them with peers, and already, signs of a darker mask appear.
We all, to some extent, wear masks, some to the degree of anguish expressed in the final stanza of the poem.
“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!”