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Paul Laurence Dunbar was only 33 years old when he died in 1906. However, in his short yet prolific life, Dunbar used folk dialect to give voice and dignity to the experiences of Black Americans in the past, present, and future.
Though ebonics are often shunned, Dunbar saw the beauty in the unrivaled language spoken by Black people.
Much like Henry Louis Gates Jr, who today serves as editor in chief of the upcoming Oxford Dictionary of African American English, Dunbar captured the rich relationship Black Americans have with the English language.
According to The Smithsonian, Dunbar was one of the first Black Americans to make a living as a writer and was seminal in the start of the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance.
Today, however, Dunbar’s artistic legacy is often overlooked, despite the fact that his work influenced many other great Black American literary behemoths, including Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston and Margaret Walker.
Dunbar also wrote one of the most iconic phrases in Black literature—“I know why the caged bird sings”—in his poem “Sympathy.”
Published in 1899, “Sympathy” inspired acclaimed Black writer and activist Maya Angelou to use Dunbar’s line as the title of her prolific 1969 autobiography.
Paul Laurence Dunbar had his way with words
In all, Dunbar wrote more than 400 poems, 12 books of poetry, 4 novels, 4 volumes of short stories, essays, hundreds of newspaper articles and lyrics for musicals.
His poetry has been continuously set to music by composers, from his contemporaries to still-living melodists, including Carrie Jacobs-Bond, John Alden Carpenter, Harry Thacker Burleigh, William Bolcom and Zenobia Powell Perry.
Florence Price’s numerous settings of Dunbar’s texts include both popular music and tunes for advertisements.
William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony features spoken epigraphs of Dunbar poems before each movement.
None was as poignant as his 1895 poem “We Wear the Mask”:
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Who was Paul Laurence Dunbar?
Born on June 27, 1872, to two formerly enslaved Africans from Kentucky, Dunbar was raised by his widowed mother in Dayton, Ohio.
An exceptional writer, he served as editor in chief of the high school newspaper, as well as a member of the literary and drama clubs and debating society.
The only Black boy or girl in his class, he became class president and class poet.
Dunbar knew the Wright people
By 1889, two years before he graduated, he had already published poems in the Dayton Herald and worked as editor of the short-lived Dayton Tattler, a Black newspaper published by classmate Orville Wright, who later gained fame with brother Wilbur Wright as inventors of the airplane.
The Wright brothers, who owned a printing press, were the first to publish Dunbar’s writings, including the newspaper he started and edited in 1890. The Dayton Tattler was the first Black newspaper in that city.
After high school, Dunbar’s and Wright’s lives assumed different flight paths.
Unable to find consistent pay for his writing, Dunbar worked a variety of jobs, including as a janitor in one downtown Dayton office building and as an elevator operator in another.
Book smart and street smart, the 20-year-old sold his first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy, to passengers he met on the elevator.
According to The Smithsonian, Dunbar’s first break came when he was invited to recite his poems at the 1893 World’s Fair, where he met the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Impressed, Douglass gave Dunbar a job as a clerk, calling him the “the most promising young colored man in America.”
On the strength of Douglass’ blessings, a growing number of award-winning poems, and a feature in Harper’s Weekly, Dunbar commenced a six-month overseas reading tour of England.
When Dunbar returned to the United States in 1897 he stacked shelves at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Soon afterwards he married fellow accomplished writer Alice Ruth Moore.
According to his wife, it was there that her husband began to think about the image of a caged bird.
“The torrid sun poured its rays down into the courtyard of the library and heated the iron grilling of the book stacks until they were like prison bars in more senses than one,” Alice wrote in 1914. “The dry dust of the dry books … rasped sharply in his hot throat, and he understood how the bird felt when it beats its wings against its cage.”
Dunbar continued to publish poetry as his health and life fell apart
According to the Poetry Foundation, he had suffered a lapse of poor health, compounded by alcoholism to treat the symptoms.
And after The Sport of the Gods appeared in 1902, Dunbar’s marital situation worsened; the couple separated in 1902.
The next year, following a nervous breakdown and another bout of pneumonia, Dunbar assembled another verse collection, Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903), and another short story collection, In Old Plantation Days (1903).
Dunbar’s stories drew the ire of many critics for their stereotyped characters, and some of his detractors even alleged that he contributed to racist concepts while simultaneously disdaining such thinking.
Despite the detractors, Dunbar’s standing as America’s foremost Black poet remains prized as a rare and supreme achievement in African American literature.