Injustice and Identity In the poem “We Wear the Mask”
Oppression is universally immoral. Not only does it have adverse effects on its victims, but also its enforcers. In the poem “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar and in the excerpt of the autobiography “My Bondage and My Freedom” by Frederick Douglass, both literary pieces highlight the idea that oppression can impact one’s identity. A person who is a victim of oppression can lose their humanity, become emotionally detached, and can persevere through the pain.
Those who are affected by oppression surrendered their humanity. Slavery denies human rights to those affected. In the excerpt of Frederick Douglass’ autobiography “My Bondage and My Freedom”, he described the blatant dehumanization portrayed by slave owners in the 1800s: “The mode here adopted to disgust the slave with freedom, by allowing him to see only the abuse of it, is carried out in other things. The same mode is sometimes adopted to make the slaves refrain from asking for more food than their regular allowance. A slave runs through his allowance and applies for more. His master is enraged at him; but, not willing to send him off without food, gives him more than is necessary, and compels him to eat it within a given time. Then, if he complains that he cannot eat it, he is said to be satisfied neither full nor fasting and is whipped for being hard to please!” (Douglass Chapter 10). A slave owner asserts their dominance by torturing their slaves as children play with toys, treating them as objects. By claiming their superiority in such a degrading manner, they have surrendered their humanity into the corrupt hands of oppression. To add, slaveholders often impregnate their female slaves. The law ensures that biracial children become slaves like their mothers. Douglass explains: “…cruel as the deed may strike anyone to be, for a man to sell his own children to human flesh-mongers, it is often the dictate of humanity for him to do so; for, unless he does this, he must not only whip them himself, but must stand by and see one white son tie up his brother, of but few shades darker complexion than himself, and ply the gory lash to his naked back; and if he lisp one word of disapproval, it is set down to his parental partiality, and only makes a bad matter worse, both for himself and the slave whom he would protect and defend” (Douglass Chapter I). Because of the implemented law that biracial children become slaves like their mothers, slaveholders profit from rape, which shows a lack of humanity. Biracial slaves often suffer additional hardships because their parents took offense to their existence. They are more likely to be sold or mistreated to gratify the parents. The fact that they do this to their children once again shows a lack of humanity. Not only did the enslaved biracial children suffer, but the mother suffered too.
When one goes through trauma or emotional negligence, they become mentally damaged. Similarly, people who are victims of oppression may become emotionally detached. When Douglass was young, he did not form a relationship with his mother: “For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. Very little communication ever took place between us… Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger” (Douglass Chapter I). Slaves are unable to form parental bonds, which Douglass agrees are vital in child-development. The lack of this bond can cause one to become emotionally detached and make someone feel isolated. Not to mention experiencing abuse and neglect for almost all of his life was severely damaging and can contribute to his aloofness. Becoming emotionally detached is detrimental to a person's social identity because they will have trouble showing affection or having good communication in their future relationships.
Although the effects of oppression I listed were negative, there is a positive to living through these brutalities: perseverance. In Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask”, he describes the hardships of persevering through slaveries abusive nature: “This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And a mouth with myriad subtleties” (Dunbar Lines 3-5). Dunbar adds, “But let the world dream otherwise, We wear the mask!” (Dunbar Lines 14-15). The enslaved people are pleading for help in a world unable to provide. The mask they wear conceals the cries. But through all of the tears shed, they wear masks to protect themselves. Comparable to Douglass’ autobiography, after the slave owners had their fun with the defenseless slaves, they persisted: “So, when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field….” (Douglass Chapter X). Since the slaves needed help the world could not provide, they have had to deal with the cards they were dealt with and keep moving forward. When the situation is out of our hands, all we can do is be tenacious.
Oppression denies individuals equal opportunities to have their basic human needs met. Victims of injustice may become emotionally distant and lose their humanity. On the bright side, these people can persevere through the violence. Our identities are built within ourselves and exercised externally. Self-exploration is essential when it comes to individuality, growth, and intimate relationships. A denial of self-exploration can be detrimental to an individual's quality of life. Although everyone plays their role in inequality, all systems are more complex than any one individual