We Have Come A Long Way
The black man’s struggle seems to be a recurrent subject looking back into the history of America. The issue of slavery began hundreds of years ago, but the effects lingered on throughout society. Slaves donated greatly to agricultural and financial wealth they could never possess. However, this contribution of blood, sweat, and tears was not to be overlooked. There was a revolution amidst black people; they arose from the darkness of slavery and slowly emerged into the light of there newly found freedom. When comparing the poets’ different styles, beginning with Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” written in 1896 immediately after slavery then moving to “America” written in 1922 by Claude McKay, there is a strong argument supporting this social transition between these two periods.
First, we must take into consideration two essential facts before analyzing “We Wear the Mask” and “America”: the perception of two black men who wrote the poems and the periods when they wrote them. Dunbar wrote his poem in the late 1800’s. Blacks had gained their freedom, but racism was socially accepted. The effects of slavery included intimidation that deprived blacks the simple pleasure of emotionally freedom. Most of the white society cleaved to total animosity toward these free blacks. After the struggle for freedom, an enduring struggle for equality began. McKay wrote his poem during the Harlem Renaissance originally named the New Negro Movement, which began around 1920. During this time, black and white Americans discovered the vibrancy and the uniqueness of black art, literature, and music. What made the movement pivotal were the affirmation of a distinct cultural heritage and the visibility of the black culture’s manifestation. This period is significantly notable for its black artistic and philosophical awakening. With these things in mind, we can now explore the mental and emotional transition that takes place between the poems.
The first stanza of “We Wear the Mask” truly speaks for itself; Dunbar voluntarily confesses “We wear the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,-” (1-2). The author does not make any specifications for the pronoun ‘we’ he uses throughout the poem to clarify the group of people he is referring. To the audience unacquainted with the author ‘we’ could mean all Americans and therefore it can relate to anyone, but the awareness of the author’s race gives the poem a very different perspective. Perhaps Dunbar intentionally omitted this fact for a greater and universal acceptance of his poem, or perhaps the concealment was also a part of the mask. Behind the mask, an observer is oblivious of a person’s emotional state. They wore their mask to obscure evidence of smiling joyously or crying sorrowful tears. Putting on their dumb, wide, and deceiving grin sheltered them from an unsympathetic society. Blacks harbored tremendous frustration and pain, yet “With torn and bleeding hearts” they still managed to “smile” (4). They were aware of the discrimination subjected to them, but pretended to be ignorant and somewhat accepting of racism and considered “This [a] debt paid to human guile;” (3). This was a sarcastic statement used by the author. Realistically, blacks did not owe society anything; ironically, slaves paid their lives for people who had no interest in their well-being. Blacks were powerless amongst white society; oddly, these same white people dominated blacks’ survival.
Blacks did not have control over anything but their own emotions, emotions that would reveal people filled with confusion. Possibly afraid of the repercussions they could face in revealing the shameful way they viewed society’s racial discrimination and exploitation they hid behind an expected faÃ§ade. Another possibility for the faÃ§ade could be a sense of self- pride extracted from their emotional suppression. Though they were crying on the inside, they felt “Why should the world be over-wise, / In counting all [their] tears and sighs” (6-7)? Black people were filled with unvoiced and undeterminable optimism during seemingly hopeless situation.
Their belief in our Savior was tested; nevertheless, they embraced their faith. They still prayed to “O great Christ” that their “tortured souls [would] arise.” (10-11). Contrary to the desires of others, “the world [could] dream otherwise” (14), but their faith guaranteed an uprising. This uprising would be a journey “and long the mile;” (13) to the point of acceptance by whites and forgiveness by blacks. Dunbar carefully chose the words used throughout his poem to ensure that no one was offended by his text. Time would allow this passive and warm-hearted style to become more heated and energetic, but the heart would turn cold.
Over the next three decades, there were signs of an uprising. Beginning around the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance inspired docile blacks across the world to explore their creativity through art, literature, and music. Blacks were finally able to take off their masks, and artistically voiced the turbulence they felt forced to suppress for so long. The camouflaged style utilized by Dunbar in “We Wear the Mask” was the opposite of McKay’s unrestricted style in “America”. Dunbar used the pronoun ‘we’ throughout his poem, but McKay is comfortable enough to use the pronouns ‘me’ and ‘I’. The brash contemporary style of McKay’s poem gave an unconstrained perception of inner thoughts and emotions of a black man living in America.
In “America”, McKay recognized the fact “she feeds me” (1) acknowledging the fact blacks had become more independent and enabled to earn a living. However, he then painstakingly concludes he must still consume “bread of bitterness” (1). With the acknowledgement of an improved degree of social and economical levels, the reality of the existing discrimination in America is exposed. Society still accepted segregation and racism. For the first time, blacks were able to voice their opinions on this injustice. The author confronted the endangerment of his survival and maliciously compares competitive vigorousness to a “tiger’s tooth” which “sinks into [his] throat…/ Stealing [his] breath of life,”(2-3). The struggle for equality was just as arduous as the struggle for freedom. McKay contemplated only a man could gain respect in this “cultured hell that tests his youth!”(4).The previous statement is an indication of the former persona portrayed by blacks: childlike, dependant, and ignorant. However, McKay refuses to play this role. He reveals discrimination has “Given strength [which] erect[s]] against … hate.”(6). Hate presumed to abate the spirit of its victim had instead resulted in an invigoration of the mind, body, and soul. Though the black race has been through slavery, discrimination, and segregation, their suppression inspired a deep desire for social, economical, and racial equality.
There was now a realization that blacks were not only living in America, they were considered Americans. The Negroes exuded pride for their race and their country being acknowledged as African-Americans. McKay admits, “Her vigor flows like tides into [his] blood,” (5). This verifies he considered America also belonged to him and other blacks who lived there. This ethical connection unfairly denied in the past contributed to the self-respect they possessed.
The apprehensive black race gained courage they once felt intimidated to display. They were able to “stand within her walls with not a shred / Of terror,” (9-10). Despite all the oppression encountered throughout history, blacks restrained from inflicting “malice, no[r] a word of jeer.”(10). Optimism still existed, however they “Darkly…gaze into the days ahead,” (11). At this time, complete equality was unfathomable. Although blacks had earned more acceptances, history put a restriction on future expectations. Their freedom of speech and empowerment had been broadened, but both were still limited.
In “We Wear the Mask” and “America” there is similarities with the struggle against discrimination and the desire for equality. Both black authors have the same observations but approach them with different attitudes. Dunbar’s style is perceptibly more passive and perhaps more universally acceptable than McKay’s. He confines his emotions of sadness, anger, and suffering within the walls of expectation. He conveys his point in a docile manner to deceive his audience, and to avoid any tension. McKay, on the other hand, does not compromise the facts in his poem. He bluntly states the facts in an aggressive manner that one could also describe as vicious and vindictive. He enlightens his audience concerning his opinions about the condition of his life as a black man in America. In conclusion, the different approach of the same idea used in both poems is evidence of a significant transition that occurred amidst the black community between the end of the nineteenth century and continuing over the next thirty years. There once was silence, but now their voices were heard. People that once hid behind a mask became confident and removed their former facade allowing the world a clear view of their unveiled thoughts and emotions.