Racism in “We Wear the Mask” and “I, Too”

The theme of racial discrimination in We Wear the Mask by Paul Dunbar and I, Too by Langston Hughes

Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Mercer Langston Hughes are the significant American poets and writers. In their poetry, they raised urgent and relevant questions concerning racial discrimination and inequality. The We Wear the Mask poem and I, Too sing America are perfect examples of how the authors expose the specifics attitude towards the black people with the help of the mood, speakers, the imagery and symbols.

We Wear the Mask Analysis

The setting of both poems can be dated back to the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century when both poets lived and created their artworks. At those times it was difficult for black Americans to survive in society. The people had no rights, suffered because of discrimination, stereotypical treatment, and prejudices. The black people were associated with dangerous thieves and bandits, ignorant and uneducated people and, moreover, were treated as an underclass. A great number of talented poets, writers and musicians had no rights and ability to express their thoughts and problems. Only the bravest and concerned dared to publish their works and give hope to their colored brothers and sisters. Paul Dunbar was one of the black artists of that time, who spoke with no fear about the status of African Americans in society. And Langston Hughes belonged to the Harlem Renaissance, the period characterized by the rebirth of the culture of the black, that aimed to uplift the race and gain equality.

We Wear the Mask meaning

The speaker in the first and the second poems is a black man. Both protagonists feel discrimination and injustice towards them from the part of white people, but they treat the situation very differently. In We Wear the Mask the speaker seems to suffer from such a negative attitude. He has a “torn and bleeding heart”, “tortured soul” and lives in “tears and sighs” (Dunbar). Being black, he feels the hypocrisy and insincerity of the society towards the black people and how he should pretend and wear the masks in expressing submission and obedience. The protagonist of I, Too am America also becomes a victim of inequality, but he laughs instead of mourning. He is aimed to “eat well”, “grow strong” and stand his ground when he will be sent to eat at the kitchen again (Hughes). So, the moods of the poems are rather different. The first one is sad and gloomy and the second one is optimistic and encouraging.

Both poems begin with pronouns that are also different. In We Wear the Mask it is the pronoun ‘we’ that relates to the black Americans. In this case, the protagonist of the poem stands out as a representative of the black people and their struggle. The voice of the speaker is the voice of those African Americans that echoes their pain throughout history. On the contrary, the poem I, Too can be treated as egoistic and self-centered because of the pronoun “I”. The protagonist also reveals the problem that black people can face, but he mainly speaks about himself and the way he overcomes them.

We Wear the Mask theme

The problem of racial discrimination is also transferred with the help symbols that are used in the poems. In We Wear the Mask the most important symbols are masks, world, and hearts world. The expression ‘to put on a mask’ has a meaning of disguising and hiding one’s true emotions and feelings and some facial expressions. In the poem, the mask is a symbol of deception and hypocrisy and represents everything untruthful and dishonest people do or say.  The mask may also serve as protection that defended the black people against the norms of society. The expression of real emotions, feelings and thoughts can only make their lives worse. “Hearts” in the poem symbolize pain and internal suffering, as they are “torn and bleeding”. The next symbol in the line: “Why should the world be over-wise, In counting all our tears and sighs?” (Dunbar) The word “world” is slightly exaggerated and hyperbolized.  Here stands for all the white people, who turned their backs on the black people and their problems.

I, Too Langston Hughes Analysis

The poem I, Too also contains a couple of symbols. These are food, kitchen, and table. The food is not directly mentioned in the text but is understandable from the lines “They send me to eat in the kitchen” and “I […] eat well” (Hughes). It is a known fact that white rich people, who had black servants, always sent them to dine in the kitchen, as the black people were not allowed to sit at the same table with their masters. The food in the poem can bear an indirect meaning and serve as a symbol of wisdom and knowledge on which the protagonist feed. It can be assumed, that he communicated with older and wiser black people in the kitchen, who told him some stories about brave African Americans and their rebellion against the oppression. So, the speaker grows strong and prepares himself to rebuff. The next symbol in I, Too poem is a kitchen that can be interpreted as a place where not only the dishes but also food for thought, are cooked. And the table is a symbol of equality that is controlled by white people. The protagonist of the poem desires to stay at the table with them and to prove his value.

To make a conclusion, both poems reflect the situation that took place in the society in 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. The theme of racial discrimination raised in the poems is very important and is still relevant nowadays. Paul Dunbar and Langston Hughes with the help of mood, the speaker and symbolic language managed to reveal the theme and transfer the emotions of the black people. Unfortunately, the problems of segregation, prejudices, and hypocrisies did not disappear from today’s world. So, if people do not talk about them, we cannot expect to see them change.