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Two African American Poems

The formal structures of Claude McKay's "If We Must Die" and Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask" operate in unusual ways. Because both poets were African Americans writing about the injustices suffered by their race, they were writing about fundamental feelings of rage and the struggle to avoid despair. But they were also writing specifically about the ways Africans Americans face the white world that oppresses them. Ironically, of course, they also wrote in the language and, at times, in the poetic tradition of the white culture.

The formal structures in these two poems are means by which the poets develop a greater intensity of feeling in the poems, and both Dunbar and McKay do this in two different ways. On the one hand, the regularity of their rhyme schemes and meters allows the poets to build their ideas and emphasize the major points in a consecutive, orderly way as the forceful rhythms move the reader along. They are able to present arguments clearly because each section of the poems (bound together by rhymes and meter) is well defined and the reader is alerted to a new idea or section of the argument by the transitions.

On the other hand, the formal structures also work in what might be called ironic ways. The simple diction and sing-song quality of Dunbar's poem barely holds back the intense anguish that threatens to escape from the boundaries of his poem. Just like the "mask" that hides what the speaker and his people really feel, the formal qualities of the poem hold these feelings in check. Rage simmers behind the mask of Dunbar's poetic formality. In McKay's poem, however, the anger is obvious but the structure of the poem allows it to build to a logical, frightening, and stirring conclusion. But McKay deliberately uses the Shakespearean sonnet form and an imitation of Shakespearean diction to convert the struggles of his own people (the subject his readers easily identify) into a universal call fo...

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Two African American Poems. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 10:25, November 29, 2021, from