A prolific writer during his too short 33 years Dunbar was born June 27th, 1872. He was a child of the hope that characterised the reconstruction period in the US following the Civil War. He was an intellectual and suspicious of the “negro dialect” writing that was so popular in his day. He preferred to express himself in proper English rather than in Uncle Tom pickaninny cant.
His influence was enormous and he inspired some of the greatest writers of the Harlem Renaissance. More recently Maya Angelou acknowledged his influence in the title of her poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” from a line in Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”.
We Wear the Mask: by Paul Laurence Dunbar
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 overwise,
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
beneath our feet, and long the mile;
but let the world dream otherwise,
we wear the mask!