An Interpretation of Paul Laurence Dunbar's Poem Sympathy and We Wear the Mask

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Throughout African American history, African Americans have used poems as a way of describing the African American condition in America. One poet who was widely known for using poetry to describe the condition of African Americans in America was Paul Laurence Dunbar. Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the most prolific poets of his time. Paul Laurence Dunbar used vivid, descriptive and symbolic language to portray images in his poetry of the senseless prejudices and racism that African Americans faced in America. Throughout this essay I will discuss, describe and interpret Sympathy and We Wear the Mask. Both Sympathy and We Wear the Mask were written by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

To begin with, the poem Sympathy suggests to the reader a comparison between the lifestyle of the caged bird, and the African American. Paul Laurence Dunbar's center of attention of Sympathy is how the African American identifies and relates to the frustrations and pain that a caged bird experiences. Dunbar begins the poem by stating "I know what the caged bird feels, alas!"(African American Literature page 922). This shows the comparison of a caged bird to an African American. Dunbar wrote this poem with vivid, descriptive, and symbolic language throughout the entire poem. Dunbar uses this vivid, descriptive and symbolic language to stress his point that some one tied up in bondage and chains is not privileged enough to enjoy the simple but unique parts of life. In the first stanza of Sympathy Dunbar wrote: I know what the caged bird feels, alas!

When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,-
And the river flows like a stream of glass:
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals-
I know what the caged bird feels!
The first stanza is representative of the symbolic speech in which Paul Laurence Dunbar uses to describe the condition of African Americans. The first stanza also states how the conditions of African Americans are similar to that of a cage bird. The symbolism in the first stanza is that of nature. Dunbar speaks of the chalice, river, and grass which are parts of nature that a person who is not oppressed, may enjoy and take for granted. Unlike the non oppressed people; chalice, river, and grass are parts of nature in which underprivileged people cannot enjoy because of social and economic circumstances. Dunbar uses language that reaches out, and projects a vivid image in which the reader may relate to.

In the second stanza, Dunbar refers to the emotional and physical abuse that imprisonment and oppression puts on both the caged bird and the African Americans. Dunbar begins the second stanza with, I know why the caged bird beats his wing

Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling

This stanza states that the caged bird and African Americans need to be both physically and emotionally set free. The previously mention stanza suggests that the cage bird and African American will result to any means necessary to gain its freedom. The caged bird and African Americans may use extreme tactics to gain freedom, for example resulting to self-inflicted physical wounds. The self-inflicted wounds come from the battle for freedom. Dunbar describes why the caged bird beats his wing till its blood is red on the cruel bars because he must "fly back to his perch and cling when he fain would be on the bough a-swing"(African American Literature). The African Americans experienced this same kind of pain from fighting for their freedom. Lynching or being put to death by hanging was often the homicide of choice of many White Americans to inflict on African Americans. The remaining portions of the second stanza portray the self –inflicted and non self-inflicted physical wounds of the caged bird to the African American.

"I know why the caged bird sings, ah me," begins the third stanza of Sympathy. The third...
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