The book was originally published in 1902 and tells the story of an African-American family living in the South and working as servants. Their lives are better than most of the people of their race during the time period after emancipation. All is well until the husband is falsely accused of stealing by a man he has served faithfully for thirty years. The story tells what happens to the family as a result of "the crime." It is well-written and powerful. Very powerful.
While I did not know about this novel before now, I was already a fan of Dunbar's poetry (Maya Angelou credits Dunbar's poetry as being one of her influences). I was introduced to a poem by Dunbar when I was in my first year of college. My literature professor gave us the poem without the title and without the author. We were given a blue book (notebook paper in a testing booklet) to write our own interpretation of the poem. Once we all gave our interpretation, our professor then told us about who wrote it and when it was written.
The poem had such an impact on me that I include it with my poetry lessons to my own students. I teach it in the same way it was taught to me. I allow the students to interpret it on their own before putting it in a time period and revealing the author. I also have the students make masks using character trait words to describe, in writing, what they show to the outside world on the outside of the mask and write words on the inside of the mask to describe how they really see themselves.
It's a good lesson...for us all.
We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, -
The 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!
~ Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 - 1906)
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