Thetwo poems under consideration are Americaby Walt Whitman and wewear the mask byPaul Laurence Dunbar. A sociological perspective of the poem revealsseveral similarities between the poems with also outright differencesin the way the poets communicate the main themes. When Whitman andDunbar were writing these respective poems, American was experiencinga mood of change in race relations. The diction of the poem revealsthat the Civil War and the activities that followed thereafter had astrong bearing on the way both authors viewed the American society. Although the poets existed and were inspired the same nationalcircumstances, they differed in their perspectives. They alsodiffered in their attitudes towards society and the future.
Whitman’sAmericaisa single-stanza poem with a strong choice of diction. The first linereads as “Centre of equal daughters, equal lines(Whitman25)”. Thesecond line also attempts to paint a picture of all men being equalby stating, “All. All alike endeared, grown, ungrown, young or old”. The third line has words that utterly contradict the nationalreality at the time with words such as, “strong, ample, fair,enduring, capable, and rich” . The fourth line has the samecontradiction as well. Whitman writes, “Perennial with earth, withfreedom, law and love” . Based on Whitman’s diction, thereader sees an optimistic persona who downplays the reality ofinequalities that existed in America on racial lines. On the otherhand, one is tempted to think that Whitman was writing from an idealperspective that deliberately keeps a blind eye to the plight ofcolored people and the tensions that rocked the nation before andduring the civil war. However, considering that the reconstructionperiod offered promise to America, Whitman must have been right topaint an optimistic picture through his deliberate choice of words.The fact the poem was also strong-worded and brief shows that theperson was not ready to compromise or negotiate the optimism in theirheart.
LikeWhitman, Dunbar was also inspired by the events of the civil war andthe reconstruction period(Hollander, John, and Comport 29). However, Dunbar’s perspective was that of a person dissatisfiedwith the way society was handling its affairs especially on racerelations. Dunbar knew that although the general mood of the civilera and the reconstruction period was that of reconciliation, thedeep-seated atrocities that had been committed and tensions betweenraces could not be wished away. The heading, “We wear the mask”embodies the pretense and dishonesty of society in resolvinghistorical injustices. Dunbar reiterates the same message in thesecond line by stating, “It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes”,meaning that the world could not really discern the society’s truecommitment to bring equality(Dunbar 23). The third line in the firststanza shows the pretense of the society: with torn and bleedinghearts we smile . In the third stanza, Dunbar concludes by urgingthe society to face its challenges head-on because the pretense onlyserve to further destroy a society that was just healing from adestructive civil war. Dunbar portrays Americans as a nationsuffering from internal wounds but pretending to be fine. The firsttwo lines in the third stanza prove so. They read, “We smile, but,O great Christ, our cries/To thee from tortured souls arise” .Thus, true reconciliation would come if America shunned the hypocrisyand sought real solutions for lasting peace.
Dunbar,Paul Laurence. "Wewear the mask."The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1970).
Hollander,John, and Sally Wern Comport. Americanpoetry.Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2004.
Whitman,Walt. Thecomplete poems of Walt Whitman.Digireads.comPublishing, 2015.