9TH ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 5 :: Angelique Zobitz on Paul Laurence Dunbar

Melissa Eleftherion
Apr 5, 2020 · 8 min read

We Wear the Mask

How Paul Laurence Dunbar’s work influenced a girl who had never considered poetry.

To understand the impact of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetic oeuvre on my own writing, it is first important for me to discuss two concepts — double consciousness as well as the usage and treatment of “Negro dialectic” (or as it’s now known African American Vernacular English) historically in the U.S in concert with the culturally rich, pride full, Black community that formed the basis of my lived experiences which influenced how deeply I felt Paul Laurence Dunbar’s work.

Double consciousness was first introduced by W.E.B DuBois in 1897 and referenced again in 1903 in his work The Souls of Black Folk; it explains the inner “twoness” and internalized conflict experienced by Black individuals in a putative, oppressive White supremacist society, in which we [Black folk], look at ourselves through the eyes of others while measuring ourselves by those who view us with derision and scorn.

One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face

Born to a Black teen mom in the early 80’s, I was raised at the knee of farm folks from all over Louisiana who’d either joined the military or went off to colleges and moved North during the Great Migration to work in factories with an eye towards partaking of the American Dream.

I learned early through observation and osmosis that because my mother was a high school dropout, because she was young, because we are Black, because we lived in “the inner city”, because we were “working class”, because I was raised by a family collective rather than a “nuclear family” and didn’t always live in the same home as my parents on a continual basis…they were all bad reasons but it doesn’t matter the reason — because we were us and not the Huxtables — that other people’s perceptions (read: White people) regarding our lives shaped every facet of our day. Reagan area racism meant my mother was one of the “welfare queens” unless we could remake ourselves in their narrowly proscribed vision and adhere to their ever changing behavioral code.

Race consciousness comes early for Black children and innocence is often lost early. It is because of all of this that my collective of great-aunties, great-uncles, grandmothers, aunts and uncles, play aunts and uncles, neighborhood adults, and our clerics gathered around all of us children and my mother, to impart pride in the singular and astonishing accomplishments in Black folks so we had unshakeable pride in our identity. I can still recall my Aunt Gloria, a high school teacher, regularly dropping off moving boxes full of books ranging from Coming of Age in Mississippi to Moby Dick to a ten-year-old me and me treating them as equally canonical because that was how it was presented. Those types of constant and subtle revolutionary actions laid my foundation.

I learned of Paul Laurence Dunbar from my parish school St. Leo the Great through an English teacher, a Black woman, whose name I no longer remember with clarity, in the lead up to our Black History Month program. Every student in the 4th grade class was asked to explore and select a historical figure from among a list she’d provided to us to report on, depict, recite or eulogize.

I grew up in Chicago so there were many amazing, immediately recognizable names on that list and in those stacks — Ida B. Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Lorraine Hansberry, Harold Washington, Margaret Walker, Mahalia Jackson, Richard Wright, Katherine Dunham, Louis Armstrong, the list was extensive, but I was also deeply curious about the Black American poetry that predated the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement and on that list were individuals such as Phyllis Wheatley, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

That weekend I took my list to the Carter G. Woodson library with my aunt, carefully combed through the card catalogue, walked the stacks while attending to the Dewey decimal system, and grabbed book after book after book until my adolescent arms were too laden to manage them on my own and I was gently redirected to a table to rest.

One of the first poems I landed on was We Wear the Mask.

God!

Until that moment, my main appetite for literature was fiction of the mold of The Babysitter’s Club and Are You Afraid of the Dark? supplemented by a steady stream of family supplied selections of serious nonfiction narratives such as Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Autobiography of Malcolm X where a Black person rose above insidious forces and dry ass Dickensian literature –you know, light reading!

So — this poem hit!

Three stanzas of exceptional lyricism expressing a double consciousness I’d experienced! This concept that I would formally learn the name of much later but felt intimately operating in my life and the lives of my family members as we navigated the world! Using paradox, extended metaphor, personification, consonance, imagery, repetition, unconventional rhyme schemes, iambic tetrameter and refrain!

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!

How absolutely fucking radical and incredible. This double consciousness of my identity was expressed so elegantly, succinctly and in such an understandable way, enthralling and electrifying me.

The impact of Paul Laurence Dunbar was such that it stimulated me to read poetry — to attend to it with the same interest and seriousness that I did other literature.

I took that volume of the collected works of Paul Laurence Dunbar home, memorized We Wear the Mask and recited it at the program. (I would like to say somehow this was shocking at my age or school, but it wasn’t. This was a school composed of all Black administrators, teachers and staff and a White clergy that understood the psychological and emotional needs for our wellbeing.)

Post the assembly, I went deeper into my interest in Paul Laurence Dunbar and learned the power and capability of flexing between “American English” and regional or “Negro dialect”. In his time, Dunbar’s use of AAVE created a controversy among other Black artists who believed his usage of it as giving in to the White gaze. The subject matter centering on the everyday lives of lesser discussed Black folks was seen as vulgar and playing to stereotype. It was a decision he also often wrestled with himself, but he documented the multiplicity of language and experiences recognizing that all Black people not just the “elevated” Black persons deserved for their lives to be seen and “satisfied” White audiences while skewering them as illustrated by Speakin at de Cou-t-house.

“Dey been speakin’ at de cou’t–house,
An’ laws–a–massy me,
‘T was de beatness kin’ o’ doin’s
Dat evah I did see.
Of cose I had to be dah
In de middle o’ de crowd,
An’ I hallohed wid de othahs,
Wen de speakah riz and bowed.

I was kind o’ disapp’inted
At de smallness of de man,
Case I ‘d allus pictered great folks
On a mo’ expansive plan;
But I t’ought I could respect him
An’ tek in de wo’ds he said,
Fu’ dey sho was somp’n knowin’
In de bald spot on his haid.

But hit did seem so’t o’ funny

Aftah waitin’ fu’ a week
Dat de people kep’ on shoutin’
So de man des could n’t speak;
De ho’ns dey blared a little,
Den dey let loose on de drums, — .
Some one toll me dey was playin’
“See de conkerin’ hero comes.”

“Well,” says I, “you all is white folks,
But you ’s sutny actin’ queer,
What’s de use of heroes comin’
Ef dey cain’t talk w’en dey’s here?”
Aftah while dey let him open,
An’ dat man he waded in,
An’ he fit de wahs all ovah
Winnin’ victeries lak sin.

Wen he come down to de present,
Den he made de feathahs fly.
He des waded in on money,
An’ he played de ta’iff high.
An’ he said de colah question,
Hit was ovah, solved, an’ done,
Dat de dahky was his brothah,
Evah blessed mothah’s son.

Well he settled all de trouble
Dat’s been pesterin’ de lan’,
Den he set down mid de cheerin’
An’ de playin’ of de ban’.
I was feelin’ moughty happy
‘Twell I hyeahed somebody speak,
“Well, dat’s his side of de bus’ness,
But you wait for Jones nex’ week.”

Feelings about dialectic — one way or the other aside– no one could dispute that Paul’s “Negro” dialect poems were executed with the same verve, nimbleness and perfection as those he composed in “conventional” English.

His dialectic work predated the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. Future luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou and Amiri Bakara would find their voices and follow his example of code switching — using their many different expressions of English informed by their environments. That breadth and diversity of work highlighted to me a Black poet’s cultural capability to hold different tongues, exhibit inventiveness, and drives me to do the same.

And it’s that work that further connected Poetry, this seemingly elevated, formal exercise of wit and esoterica, with the art forms of r&b, hip-hop, blues, jazz and country that were constant in my young life, entrenching in me that poetry had room for me and my experiences. Paul set me on a path of freedom to work in the language I felt most necessary to capture life how it is lived.

Paul’s work taught me how a well-crafted poem can have weight and heft, resonance and impact, hold a mirror up or burn a house down, in as many or as few lines, using whatever language the poet thinks best.

Angelique Zobitz’s work has been featured in Sugar House Review, The Adirondack Review, Yemassee, & Glass: A Journal of Poetry among many others. Additional work is forthcoming in Obsidian: Literature & Arts of the African Diaspora, Anomaly: Online Journal of International Literature and Art, and The Midwest Quarterly. She is a Spring 2019 Black River Chapbook Finalist, a two-time 2019 Best of the Net Anthology nominee. She lives in West Lafayette, Indiana with her husband, daughter, and a wild rescue dog and can be found on Twitter and Instagram: @angeliquezobitz and angeliquezobitz [dot] com.

The Operating System & Liminal Lab

What is it for? Who is it for?

The Operating System & Liminal Lab

The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. We are committed to gathering resources for citizen action, to transparency, to a unique publishing model, and to continuous evolution. We are based in Brooklyn, NY.

Melissa Eleftherion

Written by

Melissa Eleftherion is a writer, librarian, and a visual artist. She is the author of field guide to autobiography (The Operating System, 2018), & 9 chapbooks.

The Operating System & Liminal Lab

The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. We are committed to gathering resources for citizen action, to transparency, to a unique publishing model, and to continuous evolution. We are based in Brooklyn, NY.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store