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.
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.
— Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1895
I thought of this poem immediately after watching Todd Phillips’ Joker. On the face of it, this poem, published in the 19th century, has nothing to do with the Oscar-winning film. But I think good art has a way of echoing wisdom from the past to the present. This poem is rich both for what it taught us back then and what it continues to teach us today.
“We Wear the Mask” was published by Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1895. It describes the tragicomic double life black Americans were forced to live in the 19th century, just 30 years after the Civil War. Dunbar captures the unbearable oppression black Americans endured when Jim Crow was the law of the land.
— Read on blog.lareviewofbooks.org/essays/wear-mask-todd-phillips-joker-paul-laurence-dunbar/