Langston Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” show how African Americans have struggled to have their own identity. Hughes draws an analogy by using rivers, which he likens to the deep connections African Americans still have to their heritage, despite the difficult times they have faced in the country. Dunbar uses the analogy of the mask to show the deep wounds which have are still ingrained in the minds of many African Americans despite the end of slavery. This paper will discuss the way these two poets highlight issues which are important to African Americans.
Dunbar uses the mask symbolically to show how African Americans have failed to express their inner emotions regarding slavery openly. Dunbar uses the mask to portray how issues which are important to African Americans are not given a lot of attention. He shows that even though slavery and racial subjugation has had a negative impact on the collective spirit of Blacks, they still struggle to have their own identity.
Dunbar’s poem reveals that even though so many evil deeds were committed against Blacks, they are trying as best as they can to hide the pain they have felt for many years. He demonstrates the collective pride Blacks have in their heritage which stops them from showing everyone that they are victims of past racial injustices.
Hughes might have been influenced by the collective pride Blacks have in their heritage as captured by Dunbar’s words. He uses the analogy of rivers to show the connections African Americans have with other Blacks in different parts of the world. Hughes describes how Blacks have contributed positively to the development of different civilizations; both ancient and modern.
Hughes reveals that Blacks have a rich cultural heritage which they should be proud of and no amount of intolerance or prejudice can wipe that away. He emphasises that Blacks should not forget the past as it is the only way they can understand who they are. He says, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” (Line 4). Hughes reveals that African Americans need to have strong communal linkages to help them have pride in their unique cultural heritage.
The mask as portrayed by Dunbar symbolizes the pretense which African Americans have regarding their history. Dunbar demonstrates the reluctance by many Blacks to confront racial injustices and other traumatic experiences they were subjected to during slavery. Dunbar uses the mask to encourage Blacks to know their history to give them wisdom on how to live in future.
He says, “To thee from tortured souls arise” (Line 11). Hughes emphasizes that African Americans need to appreciate their identity by taking time to understand their history. He emphasizes that Blacks need to improve their self-esteem as it is the only way future generations can have pride in their heritage. Hughes acts as a collective voice of the entire African American community because he encourages them to build strong communal ties to make them proud of their heritage.
In conclusion, the two poets encourage African Americans to be more proud about their heritage, even though they have faced a lot of hardships in the society. They insist African Americans need to be in control of their own destiny. They encourage African Americans to understand their history as this will make them well prepared to tackle future challenges.
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “We Wear The Mask. “ Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation Mag, 2013.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation Mag, 2013.