Paul Laurence Dunbar‘s ”The Debt” & ”We Wear The Mask”

Simple Gifts

18-10-2021 • 3 mins

In history this month we read Booker T. Washington's famous "Atlanta Exposition Speech" and selections from his autobiography UP FROM SLAVERY to show the context. In reciprocity, then, the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar contextualizes Washington's words, and is in turn contextualized by them.

In "The Debt" Dunbar contemplates the choices and compromises we make in life, and the consequences we bear for those choices. It is short, powerful and profound.

In "We Wear The Mask" the poet speaks both particularly of the black experience in post-slavery America and universally of human dissimulation in social structure. I cannot help but draw attention to the connection in these two poems of the term "debt."

We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— This debt we pay to human guile   The debts we must pay are our own and others, but in ALL cases, personal and social, it is human guile, dissimulation itself, the great lie, which exacts our souls as the remorseless creditor. As Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every human being.