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The poems overarching theme of African-Americans being forced to subdue their identity and submit to an enforced masquerade is made manifest from the very opening line which asserts a collective experience through its pronoun choice and the description of that mask as one that presents an outwardly cheery countenance which is, in fact, a lie. Further descriptive imagery brings the mask into sharper contrast in the reader’s mind: big enough to cover the cheeks and capable of throwing shade over the eyes.
That the mask is specifically intended to present an untruthful person is demonstrated by observation that the mask is part of a debt that must be paid. The mask is also a work of crafty guile as it forces the debt by making the wearer appear happy at all times regardless the pain they may be feel beneath. The historical implication is clear: regardless of emancipation and abolition and Reconstruction, blacks at all times must show publicly demonstrate the debt they owe for being free through an exhibition of happy contentment.
The heartbreak and simmering anger at the being force to wear this mask suddenly seems to melt away as the narrator seriously ponders why anything else should be expected? The white world hasn’t been overeager to analyze all tears and sighs that have marked the black experience in America. The mask gives them a chance to alleviate that painful experience by choosing the view the mask as the reality and avoiding the truth that lies beneath.
The poem draws to a conclusion with the news that behind the smile of the mask lies very often someone crying out to Jesus for with a soul in torture. There is then the confession the sound of a song does not automatically imply happiness. The joyous sound of singing is just another way to make it through the long road that is still lies ahead in the journey toward the day when they can remove the mask.
Until then, the rest of the world can think the mask is the reality. And they will continue wearing it.