“We Wear the Mask” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” are poems that were written in the period following the Civil War. The poems also predate the Civil Rights Movement. During this period, most people had mixed feelings concerning the struggles of the African Americans. Both of these poems chronicle the diversity of these feelings.
However, it is clear that the message from both poets is that the struggle continues. There are many similarities and differences in interpretation between these two poems. Some of these are clear-cut, while the others are subtle. This paper will compare and contrast the messages carried by these works of literature.
Dunbar says that the African Americans wear a mask that portrays them as a happy lot to the rest of the world. “We Wear the Mask” was released to the world in 1896. During this time, slavery had just ended and everyone expected the African American population to be in high spirits. Dunbar scoffs at this idea by portraying African Americans as wearing masks of happiness. However, as the speaker asserts in line 3, the African American population has “torn and bleeding hearts”. By the time this poem was written, the fight against racism and unequal treatment was still bubbling under the surface.
This is why Dunbar confirms that African Americans are just masking their real feelings. The mask symbolizes the attitude that was assumed by most African Americans soon after slavery was abolished. Deep down they knew they deserved more rights, but they declined to air these issues in the open. They instead chose to turn to other avenues like their faith in Christ. In the third stanza, the speaker says that they cry to Christ while misleading the rest of the world about their plight.
Hughes, who wrote his poem twenty-five years after Dunbar’s was published, has a different approach on African American issues. Hughes’ poem carries a strong message that highlights pride of origin. The speaker reaffirms albeit with pride, that his roots are connected to mighty rivers. Between the time Dunbar wrote his poem and the time Hughes wrote his, many events had already transpired.
Over this period, the struggles of the African Americans had multiplied. This is why Hughes took the time to explore the history and origins of African Americans. By doing this, the poet asserts that the strength and the history of African Americans cannot be shaken by the events of the time. According to Hughes, even if the African Americans wear a mask, their heritage and pride cannot be altered.
The “mask” described by Dunbar only hides the rich heritage that is described by Hughes in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. Those who see the African Americans at the time seem oblivious of the contribution they made to several ancient civilizations. These civilizations occurred in different areas and periods. The Africans thrived in all of them. Fellow Americans at the time only viewed African Americans as recently freed slaves. However, they failed to take into consideration that before they were slaves they had a rich and significant history. The speaker in Hughes poem unifies the plight of all African Americans because of their shared origin.
Both of these poems raise pertinent issues concerning the struggle of African Americans. These struggles were to materialize when they achieved equal rights and overcame racism. The two authors agree that the struggle is still not over but they do so in the context of their times.