Born the son of former slaves, Paul Laurence Dunbar carved out a significant place for black American voices in literature. Considered the first major Black American poet, Dunbar developed a few distinct voices. He distinguished himself not only as a master of literary works in the American Romantic tradition but also the use of Black American dialect in writing.
In his own time, Dunbar was primarily celebrated for his works in the regional black dialect. However, contemporary scholars and readers now debate their poetic merits. Were these literary curiosities that reinforced antebellum stereotypes? Or do they represent authentic depictions of black culture? Yet even if we disregard these works, his contributions to American Romanticism would remain classics.
For more on why Dunbar remains an essential voice in the American literary canon-or why this controversy is worth debating-read our profile of him with selected works.
Read one of his most famous works and watch a video discussion from poet Kevin Young.
We Wear the Mask
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.
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!