PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR

PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR

1872-1906

Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first poets to effectively employ “black dialect” as a tool in poetry, was bom to former slaves in Dayton, Ohio. In school in Dayton he joined the literary society and served on the staff of the school newspaper.

In 1893, he published his first poetry collection entitled Oak and Ivy. His sec¬ ond, Majors and Minors (1895), was fol¬ lowed by the internationally recognized collection Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896).

With an introduction by the esteemed crit¬ ic William Dean Howells, who praised Dunbar for being “the only man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel the Negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically…,” Lyrics of a Lowly Life became the definitive poetic text on black experience.

Dunbar’s acceptance into the literary world was one that lost him support in the African-American community. Viewed as an accommodationist more like Booker T.Washington (see no. 24) than W.E.B. Du Bois (see no. 32), Dunbar was accused of creating characters that were stereotyped by their foolish, fun-loving simplicity.

He was accused of avoiding subjects like Jim Crow laws and the rise in lynchings in his short story collections, Folks From Dixie (1898), In Old Plantation Days (1903), and The Heart ofHappy Hollow (1904). But he was also given credit for being one of the only poets who honestly simulated African- American speech patterns in his work, bringing an artistic representation of black culture to his broad national audience.

Because he was extremely popular with white readers, Dunbar’s voice was also valu¬ able when applied to social criticism. He wrote about African-American heroes in “The Colored Soldiers” and “Harriet Beech¬ er Stowe,” and acknowledged the pain of racism in “Sympathy,” from which the phrase “I know why the caged bird sings” was extracted for the title of Maya Angelou’s autobiography (see no. 89).

In 1898, when the success of the industrialized North was feeding a debate between blacks and whites over education, Dunbar urged African-Americans to remember the rewards of classical learning. He stat¬ ed that “People are taking it for grant¬ ed that the Negro ought not to work with his head. And it is so easy for these people among whom we are liv¬ ing to believe this.”

He went on to state that though men need not bury their heads permanently in scholarly works, they must temper their new passion for industry with a passion for art, science, and idealism. He urged them to remember the difference between “utilitarianism and beauty.”

His own artistic career was cut short when Dunbar succumbed to tuberculosis at age 33.