MEdia LIbrArY

Self-Portrait, 1941 watercolor by Samuel Joseph Brown (1907–1994). (Creative Commons via metmuseum.org)
Black Identities
One way for readers to understand the African American poetic tradition is as a series of lyrical improvisations on Blackness. Sometimes a mode of lament, sometimes born of celebration, call it the tragi-celebratory poetics of African American identity. Published in Dunbar’s collection Majors and Minors (1895), “We Wear the Mask,” a poem that highlights Dunbar’s ability to blend vernacular and formalist impulses, is a strong example of African American tragi-celebratory poetics. Its subject is nothing less than expression itself, and the constraints on unadulterated self-representation imposed on African Americans. The opening stanza invokes masking as a practice of dissembling that is fundamental to African American identification: “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.” — From the essay by Walton M. Muyumba
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