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This article identifies the mechanisms of racial microstressors, intergenerational transmission of trauma, and societally-imposed repression in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem We Wear the Mask. These mechanisms form a cycle of racial trauma that coalesces into Dunbar’s symbol of the mask. The cycle represented by the mask is then applied to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which elaborates further on the personal experience and negative effects of the process of racial trauma that is identified in the poem. Examples of racial microstressors are evidenced in the novel through the presence of both negative interpersonal interactions and media messages privileging whites over blacks. Intergenerational trauma is identified through the transmission of internalized white beauty standards from parent to child and the negative psychic effect that this has on children in the novel, such as Pecola Breedlove. It is noted that a difference exists between Dunbar’s depiction of societally-imposed repression and Morrison’s use of the mask to depict not only repression, but also the social role of a scapegoat. Despite the overwhelming trauma evident in both We Wear the Mask and The Bluest Eye, it is concluded that hope for resilience still exists. In the poem this hope comes primarily in the form of community and social support. In the novel, hopes instead exists through the secure sibling relationship between Claudia and Frieda McTeer.


Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Society for Comparative Literature and the Arts, held in Austin, TX, October 14-16, 2021.