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A man behind a mask

A Persona Unmasked: A Creative Review of “We Wear The Mask” By Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Submitted by Editor on 11 May 2024


By Chidiebere Sullivan Nwuguru

Beyond Methuselah, I have always been here, surviving across generations, a faithful onlooker who has always hovered above the soft skin of your faces; clinging passionately to your cheeks with a thick depth of silence and pretense. People see me as a perfect mask to cover up their pains, a visage of false cheer, a guard against the censorious eyes and the judgmental tongues of the world. Paul Lawrence Dunbar, an African American poet and novelist, in his poem — “We Wear The Mask”, which was written in 1895 as a reaction to the experience of being black in America in the 19th century, was able to capture my significance perfectly—“the mask that grins and lies, it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes”, thus hiding the storms in the lives of people from the eyes of the world, which has been through the reigns of slavery up until today

Centuries later, even with all the technological advancements in the world, I still remain among the people as the curated online persona covering up their offline broken pieces, in the office, as the forced smiles on the faces of the workers, in the market, as the hidden tears behind the struggles of the marketers, in the war-zone, as the brightness of hope in the posture of homes torn into shreds; the very mask that has eaten deep into fabrics of the society. However, lately, I feel a pushback, a tremor, and crashes emerging from my ever-smooth surface; contours scribbled by untold truths, hidden tears, unshared emotions, and pains buried alive. Everyone seems to be struggling to break free from me; I could see these struggles in the sad faces I cover, in the teary eyes I shield — a flicker of rebellion, a longing for authenticity; the subdued heart under my grip, once an inaudible drum, now beats in a strange rhythm of quest beyond what I can ever give it. The smiles I layer above deep-rooted pains now feel very brittle, the forced pleasantries hanging on the lips of the downtrodden ring hollow; almost so fake, you could notice it.


A masked face


Has the world gotten to a point where my masking ability is starting to grow out of use, or is this just another phase where I'm being worn differently? — A shield of honesty, a conveyor of genuine emotions, an emblem of truth devoid of deceits. However the future turns out, one thing is certain— I will always remain among the people just like Dubar pointed out in his poem, “We Wear The Mask”; a sense of responsibility which extends my essence across the people and the world at large. In the time of Dunbar, it was among the black African Americans facing the terror of racism, today, I am still relevant among the internet-plagued generation— my duty changing and the future only abounds; always available for the people to make do with me as the metaphor for a shield against the storms of the world, or an emblem that magnifies their sincere emotions. 

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries to thee from tortured souls arise.” No matter how we look at it, Dunbar made me a metaphor for everything left unsaid and in his words: “But let the world dream otherwise, we wear the mask.” Thus, no matter how you look at it, I will always remain with the world; I only hope they learn to wear me better — so that I magnify the brightness more than I shield the gloom.