Pull Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask,” describes the façade that African-Americans have had to adopt in the presence of white people because long ago and even perhaps today, it could be risky for them to disclose how they actually felt about things that they were experiencing. In the days of slavery, white people tended to want to believe that their slaves were actually happy living on their plantations, and they used the fact that African-Americans sang and danced as evidence of that.
Instead, the nightmarish existence of African-Americans was certainly taking its emotional toll on internally, but they had to expend an awful lot of energy to keep that hidden. If white people became aware that African-Americans actually felt a tremendous amount of rage and pain, they would likely have taken steps to squelch those feelings, or to deny them, or at worst, to treat them even more harshly because of the concern that they might rebel or resort to (justifiable) violence.
The way that blacks were mistreated during the 19th century naturally caused the “torn and bleeding hearts” behind which they were smiling, the ground beneath them is described as “vile”, their souls are tortured, but they worked hard to give a different impression on the outside. Although things have changed for African-Americans in a formal way, i.e. slavery no longer exists, discrimination is illegal, etc., it is unclear whether or not black people actually feel free to express their innermost reactions to their circumstances, even in modern times. In order to maintain employment, and earn the things that they strive for, black people still have to play a sort of game in order to come close to a level playing field when it comes to succeeding in business, society, and most areas of their lives.
As a result, it is likely that African-Americans can only be truly honest within their own group, where there is less danger of alienating the majority and experiencing repercussions for expressing any inner frustration or anger. For African-Americans and other minorities, a mask is still necessary in many circumstances.