Throughout African American history, African Americans have used poems as a way of describing the African American condition in America. One poet who was widely known for using poetry to describe the condition of African Americans in America was Paul Laurence Dunbar. Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the most prolific poets of his time. Paul Laurence Dunbar used vivid, descriptive and symbolic language to portray images in his poetry of the senseless prejudices and racism that African Americans faced in America. Throughout this essay I will discuss, describe and interpret Sympathy and We Wear the Mask.
Both Sympathy and We Wear the Mask were written by Paul Laurence Dunbar. To begin with, the poem Sympathy suggests to the reader a comparison between the lifestyle of the caged bird, and the African American. Paul Laurence Dunbar's center of attention of Sympathy is how the African American identifies and relates to the frustrations and pain that a caged bird experiences. Dunbar begins the poem by stating "I know what the caged bird feels, alas!" (African American Literature page 922). This shows the comparison of a caged bird to an African American. Dunbar wrote this poem with vivid, descriptive, and symbolic language throughout the entire poem.
Dunbar uses this vivid, descriptive and symbolic language to stress his point that some one tied up in bondage and chains is not privileged enough to enjoy the simple but unique parts of life. In the first stanza of Sympathy Dunbar wrote: I know what the caged bird feels, alas! When the sun is bright on the upland slopes; When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass, -And the river flows like a stream of glass: When the first bird sings and the first bud opes, And the faint perfume from its chalice steals-I know what the caged bird feels! The first stanza is representative of the symbolic speech in which Paul Laurence Dunbar uses to describe the condition of African Americans. The first stanza also states how the conditions of African Americans are similar to that of a cage bird. The symbolism in the first stanza is that of nature. Dunbar speaks of the chalice, river, and grass which are parts of nature that a person who is not oppressed, may enjoy and take for granted. Unlike the non oppressed people; chalice, river, and grass are parts of nature in which underprivileged people cannot enjoy because of social and economic circumstances.
Dunbar uses language that reaches out, and projects a vivid image in which the reader may relate to. In the second stanza, Dunbar refers to the emotional and physical abuse that imprisonment and oppression puts on both the caged bird and the African Americans. Dunbar begins the second stanza with, I know why the caged bird beats his wing Till its blood is red on the cruel bars; For he must fly back to his perch and cling This stanza states that the caged bird and African Americans need to be both physically and emotionally set free. The previously mention stanza suggests that the cage bird and African American will result to any means necessary to gain its freedom. The caged bird and African Americans may use extreme tactics to gain freedom, for example resulting to self-inflicted physical wounds. The self-inflicted wounds come from the battle for freedom.
Dunbar describes why the caged bird beats his wing till its blood is red on the cruel bars because he must "fly back to his perch and cling when he fain would be on the bough a-swing" (African American Literature). The African Americans experienced this same kind of pain from fighting for their freedom. Lynching or being put to death by hanging was often the homicide of choice of many White Americans to inflict on African Americans. The remaining portions of the second stanza portray the self -inflicted and non self-inflicted physical wounds of the caged bird to the African American. "I know why the caged bird sings, ah me," begins the third stanza of Sympathy.
The third stanza seems to represent a prayer or song. Prayer and song is usually for the most part, is though to be out of happiness and uplift. Unlike the usual sentiments that come with song and prayer, the singing and praying in the last stanza of the poem Sympathy was that of a plea for help and freedom for both African Americans and the caged bird. Paul Laurence Dunbar's Sympathy is his way of expressing the suppressed life of African Americans during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Dunbar compares an innocent creature's lifestyle to the lifestyle of the African Americans. The language chosen for this poem is that of compassion, sympathy, and understanding in the bird. This in turn allows the reader feel sympathy for the lives of the slaves. Similar to the poem Sympathy the poem We Wear the Mask speaks metaphorically. In the poem Sympathy the cage bird represents African Americans and in the poem We Wear the Mask the mask speaks of race. Dunbar also speaks in a muffled voice.
In the first stanza of We Wear the Mask Dunbar speaks of hidden emotions. In the first stanza Dunbar wrote: 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. In the second to last line Dunbar wrote "With torn and bleeding hearts we smile" this also states how the mask is representative of an actual mask that hides African Americans feelings.
The mask does not come from a physical object, but the mask comes from African Americans showing a blank face when they want and feel emotions. In the second stanza of We Wear the Mask Dunbar speaks how it is unfair that African Americans are only accepted when they wear the mask. 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. The mask in the second stanza is the mask in which hides African Americans feelings and thoughts from the public.
The second stanza ask a question of "Why should the world be over wise" which is interpreted as Dunbar asking why should the majority of people have such a negative affect on people and how the minorities respond to societal norms. These societal norms that are spoken of a rules or unspoken laws that are set up to benefit and serve the majority or those that are in charge. In this case Similar to Sympathy the third stanza of We Wear the Mask is also like a prayer. The third stanza is a plea for release of control over African Americans.
The third stanza is also a plea from African Americans for the release of hiding feelings and emotions. In conclusion, Paul Laurence Dunbar was of the most prolific poets to ever write poetry. Paul Laurence Dunbar used vivid, descriptive and symbolic language to portray images in his poetry of the senseless prejudices and racism that African Americans faced in America. This use of vivid, descriptive and symbolic language was very apparent in both of his poems Sympathy and We Wear the Mask.