The Mask


Jeff Arwady


Synopsis contributed by Jeff Arwady:

At its core, Dunbar’s Mask is about hiding one’s true feelings to either assimilate or to avoid the often too bitter alternatives that honesty elicits. When Dunbar wrote of this concept, he applied it to the culture of slavery that helped define the American South until the Civil War. If slaves complained, or showed any signs of rebellion, they were severely beaten. Thus, slaves HAD to “wear the mask.” If they let their true feelings shine through, they would risk severe injury or even death. Although that is one aspect of Dunbar’s Mask, the applications for the author were far more personal. While slaves wore the mask for survival, most people today wear it for a very different reason.

We as human beings hide ourselves behind this mask, as though concealing some grotesque human disfigurement. Whether we do this because we don’t actually like who we are, or because of some sense of inadequacy is unclear. What is clear is that the judgement of others based on one’s own personal standards is ultimately self-defeating. Dunbar shows us that the more one is judged or persecuted, the more one hides behind the mask. Thus, the more one seeks to find “truth” through interrogation, mistrust, and judgment, the less of it one actually finds. In the end, our culture itself is what is lost. The American experiment is about freedom and self-determination; and to a further extent, the freedom to express one’s personality.

Why Dunbar’s poem is still relevant today has to do with how oppressive and brutal human enslavement is. While we can thankfully say that our physical bodies are no longer enslaved, are we to really be satisfied? Is a human being simply a collection of chemicals and compounds organized in a particular way, or is there more? If, like most humans, one believes that there must be more to us all then the sum of our parts, then one must admit that the oppressive nature of enslavement that makes Dunbar’s Mask relevant is not the physical enslavement at all, neigh, instead it is and always has been the enslavement of the soul itself. Can any one person honestly say that they do not believe their own soul, there own self, is not enslaved in some way(s) by the oppressive culture of conformity that plagues the modern American? If one has ever experienced the total dysfunction resulting from “being whom they really are”, then one must concede that society itself only functions because millions of people wear Dunbar’s Mask. Without it, yes, there would be intellectual chaos for a time. However, there would also be truth and perhaps, in a scenario that could be too much to hope for, progress. As the prospect of that scenario grows fainter and dimmer with each passing generation, the belief in Dunbar’s Mask becomes a terrible burden, a terrible truth that, for this author, causes great lament.

“The Mask”, therefore, is ultimately a lament for humanity. While it explores Dunbar’s Mask as a mysterious and somewhat ominous concept, it ultimately and inevitably succumbs to its ramifications. However the work had to be completed. This excerpt from the author’s personal notes provides some insights:

“Sitting at an old bar piano, that had been with our family ever since my Father’s restaurant failed, I began to play. I played for six days. Anything besides the music I was composing became ill-important. School was an interruption of my work. Even primal things like eating and sleeping lost all of their value. I had become inspired to the point of obsession. Finally, on a Saturday, I finished “The Mask.” It was in a very rough piano score but it was there. It was a fantasy of Dunbar’s Mask. Themes of the Mask itself, the human brain, emotional turmoil, all were engulfed in my ten-minute score. “

The transition from piano score to a symphonic band score occurs one fateful day when former Algonac High School Band Director Gregory Nimtz heard the author playing the piano score in the Algonac High School Band room. Seeing some potential, Mr. Nimtz commissioned the author to create a symphonic band version of the work. The work is in two movements - the first “A Brief Perspective” was written specifically with a symphonic band in mind and serves as an introduction or intellectual setting for Dunbar’s Mask. The second movement is true to the original piano score and attempts to expose Dunbar’s Mask, provide social commentary, and ultimately to lament American society for the insistence of such psychological devices.

While certainly not a “master work”, “The Mask” nevertheless aligns itself with Dunbar’s legacy. It attempts to show us part of the human condition, and to suggest, ultimately, that perhaps there is a better way forward. The hope of the author is that listeners will be self-reflective about their own masks, and that somehow they will move past them to create a common future where such devices are no longer necessary. Such a future would only owe its creation to that of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s courageous and apt insights into the very nature of the human soul.


Whenever I mention “Dunbar’s Mask,” I am referring to the poem “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. This was the poem that inspired me to write “The Mask” during my junior year of high school. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Mr. Stephen Young. Mr. Young was my American literature and A.P. United States History teacher at Algonac High School; but he was so much more. His undying dedication to teaching and his never-yielding pursuit to bring me culture helped to make me a more well-rounded individual. I am specifically grateful for his mandatory reading of “We Wear the Mask.” Without this reading, I would never have been inspired to write the piece that I did. The symphonic piece, as well as this written overview, are dedicated to Stephen Young; for this exciting flame of culture and knowledge is one that will never truly be extinguished.

Biographical Information

(b. 1981) Jeff Arwady earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in music composition at Central Michigan University, where he studied with David Gillingham and José- Luis Maúrtua. He studied orchestration and composition with Jere Hutcheson at Michigan State University. He studied conducting with John E. Williamson, director of bands at CMU and a well-respected wind conductor in the Midwest, and Carlton Woods, retired orchestral conducting faculty at CMU and former maestro of the Midland Symphony Orchestra. He has created original music for 12 films and has worked with several independent film directors. In 2009, he was awarded “Best Original Score” honors at the PAH Film Festival, hosted by Christopher Coppola.