by Trevor Aleo
In a time where our students spend years crafting curated versions of themselves on social media, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” provides a context to discuss the growing dissonance between our inward and outward facing selves. Though the poem was originally meant to convey the double consciousness originally articulated by W.E.B. DuBois (and re-examined in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”), the idea of hiding pain behind a veneer of happiness is an increasingly relatable one in our social media driven world. Though the symbol of the mask may not be a subtle one, Dunbar’s sing-song iambic tetrameter, spiritual allusions, and chilling refrain convey the inescapable universality of “the mask.”
After reading the poem, ask students why Dunbar believes people wear masks. Then, ask them which ones they wear and why. Does the anonymity that masks provide empower or isolate us? If we know we’re all in pain, why do we continue to hide it from each other?
To start engaging in some learning transfer fun, ask students to write out three situations in which people “wear masks” to hide their true feelings. Then, ask them to start looking for similarities and differences in each example. What do they notice? What are some emergent patterns that occur across all three examples? Based on the inferences they’ve made about masks, ask them to articulate the relationship between one or more of the following concepts: power, isolation, identity, fear, acceptance, empathy, and anonymity. For example, a group might note that “Anonymity helps people feel powerful and allows them to overcome fear,”
To test the mettle of their statement of conceptual relationship, ask them to provide an additional context that proves their statement to be true. In the group example stated above, students might cite Jack’s evolution once he put on the face paint in Lord of the Flies.
Trevor Aleo is an English teacher in the DC suburbs. He has a passion for instructional innovation, finding the intersection of pop culture and pedagogy, and incessantly asking his students “Why?” You can find him pontificating on the state of American culture and education on Twitter @MrAleoSays.