The Mask – by Maya Angelou

The Mask

by Maya Angelou

We wear the mask that grins and lies.
It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes.
This debt we pay to human guile
With torn and bleeding hearts…
We smile and mouth the myriad subtleties.
Why should the world think otherwise
In counting all our tears and sighs.
Nay let them only see us while
We wear the mask.

We smile but oh my God
Our tears to thee from tortured souls arise
And we sing Oh Baby doll, now we sing…
The clay is vile beneath our feet
And long the mile
But let the world think otherwise.
We wear the mask.

When I think about myself
I almost laugh myself to death.
My life has been one great big joke!
A dance that’s walked a song that’s spoke.
I laugh so hard HA! HA! I almos’ choke
When I think about myself.

Seventy years in these folks’ world
The child I works for calls me girl
I say “HA! HA! HA! Yes ma’am!”
For workin’s sake
I’m too proud to bend and
Too poor to break
So…I laugh! Until my stomach ache
When I think about myself.
My folks can make me split my side
I laugh so hard, HA! HA! I nearly died
The tales they tell sound just like lying
They grow the fruit but eat the rind.
Hmm huh! I laugh uhuh huh huh…
Until I start to cry when I think about myself
And my folks and the children.

My fathers sit on benches,
Their flesh count every plank,
The slats leave dents of darkness
Deep in their withered flank.
And they gnarled like broken candles,
All waxed and burned profound.
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.

There in those pleated faces
I see the auction block
The chains and slavery’s coffles
The whip and lash and stock.

My fathers speak in voices
That shred my fact and sound
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.

They laugh to conceal their crying,
They shuffle through their dreams
They stepped ’n fetched a country
And wrote the blues in screams.
I understand their meaning,
It could an did derive
From living on the edge of death
They kept my race alive
By wearing the mask! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

Notes:

An adaptation of the poem by Paul Lawrence “We Wear the Mask”

We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should that world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, oh my God, 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 think otherwise,
We wear the mask.

Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask appeared in Dunbar’s first published volume, Lyrics of Lowly Life, by Dodd, Mead, and Company in 1896. It also was in print in the volume Majors and Minors the previous year. Having parents who lead a past of slavery, and subjected to Apartheid himself, Dunbar was aware of the internal anguish and agony the blacks went through. The mask, an extended metaphor utilized here, marks a distinction between the mask and the man. Note that he says ‘We wear the Mask” and not ‘We are the mask.’ The action is done consciously and objectively. Henry Louis Gates referred to Dunbar’s dialect verse as “mask in motion”.The black puts up a brave face, as he would prefer to break than bend to life’s atrocities. The mask portrayed grins and lies. The mask hides the blood rushing to the cheek; and shades the eyes that most eloquently gives away one’s emotions. The blacks pay a heavy debt to human astuteness submitting to the vileness of the whites. The ‘We’ refers to the collective consciousness of the black race. Though the mouth gives away emotions in all its subtlety ,the smile that forms the mask camouflages the ‘torn and bleeding hearts.” Likewise, the black plays out his preset role in the world despite the fact what lies in his heart. Again, the mask here ‘lies’. A person generally lies for personal benefit. Here, however, the individual who wears the mask only suffers on account of lying.

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.

As the world is engaged in pseudo-sympathies, it comes across as over-wise. The best option therefore would be to only perceive the blacks on a superficial level, with the mask on, rather than put up an act of counting ‘tears and sighs’. The lines in the first stanza also strongly evokes the image of the clown in the circus, who in spite of all his personal hassles grins.

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!

The poet asserts: “We smile” in the present tense. However, the cries from the tortured souls are discernible only to Christ. The act of singing has been emblematized as an affirmation of being American in this poem ,as in other poems like Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” and Langston Hughes’s “I,Too”. Singing is also an individual expression of personal freedom and well-being. The words “clay is vile” signifies the setting for numerous slaves in the South where the plantation abounds in clay. The plantation is the source of livelihood for the blacks.Their means to survival-‘the clay’ is indeed vile for the whites who own ‘the clay’ or plantations treat them in a despicable manner. They are subject to abject humiliation, only for their colour. The phrase ‘long the mile’ makes reminiscent the lines of Robert Frost in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

The speaker pauses to dream only for a moments ,and then reverts to his earlier stand. That, it was better for the world to dream, otherwise. He would stick to the mask. Peter Revell asserts:” The poem is also an apologia for all that his own and succeeding generations would condemn in his work, for the grin of minstrelsy and the lie of the plantation tradition that Dunbar felt himself bound to adopt as part of the “myriad subtleties” required to find a voice and to be heard.”(Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979. Copyright © 1979 by G.K. Hall & Co.)Not only is the speaker enslaved,his emotions are also imprisoned. As he portrays his community in another poem “Sympathy”, as a caged bird.

© Rukhaya MK 2012

The content is the copyright of Rukhaya MK. Any line reproduced from the article has to be appropriately documented by the reader. ©Rukhaya MK. All rights reserved.

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