Paul L. Dunbar Essay, Research Paper
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar was born June 27, 1872 in Dayton, OH. His mother Matilda, was a former slave and his father Joshua had escaped slavery and served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Calvary Regiment during the Civil war (online). Joshua and Matilda separated in 1874.
Dunbar came from a poor family. After his father left, his mother supported the family by working as a washerwoman. One of the families she worked for was the family of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Paul attended Dayton s Central High School with the two. When Matilda was a slave she heard a lot of poems by the families she worked for. She loved poetry and encouraged her children to read poetry as well. Dunbar began writing and reciting poetry as early as age six.
Paul was one of the most popular poets of his time and was the first black American writer to achieve national and international reputation. He was not only a poet, but also a novelist, short story writer, writer of articles and dramatic sketches, plays and lyrics for musical compositions. His first volume of poetry, Oak and Ivy was published in 1893. Many of his poems and stories were written in Afro-American dialect, of which he was initially most noted for (Martin and Hudson 16).
His second volume, Majors and Minors was published in 1895. Majors and Minor were a collection of poems that was written in standard English ( major ) and in dialect ( minor ) (Young 373). It was this book that fixed him on his literary path. This book attracted favorable notice by novelist and critic, William Dean Howells who also introduced Dunbar s next book, Lyrics of Lowly Life which contained some of the finest verses of the first two volumes.
Dunbar was a popular writer of short fiction. He relied upon tone, subtle details expressed through speech, atmosphere, assumed manners and morals, and mood rather than plot to tell his tale. His depiction of life on plantations gives a vivid account of the fate of black men before and after the emancipation.
Interestingly enough, Dunbar did write about whites in society also. He did not write about them at the bottom of society, but sarcastically wrote of them in the upper class of society as detailed in his story The End of the Chapter .
Unlike a few writers at that time, Dunbar did not only write about black people struggling to survive, but black people flourishing. He did give fictive details in some instances, but it was not the main basis of his works.
A few misconceptions about Dunbar’s poetic achievement prevailed during the past ninety years. One myth was that Dunbar disliked his own work in dialect and was forced to write dialect by editors. It may be so that his dialect verse was more popular than his poetry in standard English, but this was true for his black readers as well as white. In an English interview in 1897, Dunbar states, I must confess my fondest love is for the Negro pieces . These little songs I sing because I must. They have grown instinctively in me . [The] Poems form in my mind long before they are written on paper (Martin and Hudson 262). Dunbar had written dialect long before editors and readers even called for it. The truth was that Dunbar loved language and he was delighted to experiment with it.
Another myth was that Dunbar s poetry avoided the racial issues of his time. Even though many of his poems convey the life of personal vision with no attention to racial or social detail, a lot of his poems celebrate the black tradition. They eulogize black heroes in war or peace; praise whites who have helped the cause of black liberation, while condemning those who perpetrate injustices towards blacks; defend the black community and satirize racist institutions. We Wear the Mask and Ode to Ethiopia is merely the most familiar of his works of protest against racial affirmation. In We Wear the Mask it describes how blacks have to sometimes shield the sadness and sorrow within to hide our true feelings of oppression. We must not let the oppressor know otherwise our true feelings. In an editorial in a issue of the Dayton Tattler in 1890, Dunbar states, You know well that the Afro-American is not one to remain silent under oppression or even fancied oppression. When kicking is needed they know how to kick (Revell 48). In Dunbar s young manhood, Fredrick Douglas pronounced him the most promising man of his race. Contrary to the myth, he possessed an abundance of racial fire.
Now lets take a closer look at some more of Paul Laurence Dunbar s poems. One poem that strikes me as interesting was He had his Dream . The fact that this poem was written so many years before Dr. Martin Luther King JR s famous I have a Dream speech is special. Nearly every line in the passage can be associated with Dr. King s speech. Could this have been a prophecy? Or could Dr. King have read this poem and actually applied this to his direction of life. Needless to say, it is a spine tingling passage that shows Dunbar s uncanny gift for writing remarkable poems (online).
A very unique gift that Dunbar had was the fact that most of his poems you could relate to. There was always some way of actually putting yourself in that particular situation or scenario and making it your own life s experience. For instance, in Little Brown Baby , a person can picture their grandfather or father (especially if they are from the south) speaking to a little baby the very same way. Little Brown Baby is just a brief trip down memory lane for most of us, and a present look at today for the rest. Another popular poem of Dunbar s that depicts the lighter side of life is A Negro Love Song . This passage describes the joyous fulfillment of being in love. It depicts a young man walking his mate home and describes the wonderful way that she makes him feel.
Love me, honey, Love me true?
Love me well ez I love you?
An she answed, Cose I do -
Jump back, honey, Jump back (Dunbar 75)
How shall I woo Thee was another of Dunbar s poem that used the love/romance theme (Dunbar 479). Dunbar explains how he feels about this individual that he appears to be having trouble speaking with. He describes how fearless he was and now how timid he has grown. These types of poems would still have a lasting effect if they were given to Ladies of the 20th century.
In conclusion Dunbar was important because his talent was at least equal to the pressure that his position as a representative of his race put upon him. He was one of the first black writers to counterbalance American race prejudice with receptivity to the strengths of the black community. Paul Laurence Dunbar died February 9, 1906.