III. Paul Dunbar’s Poetry
Paul Laurence Dunbar achieved recognition as America’s first black American to earn a living as a professional writer. He authored six volumes of poetry as well as novels, songs and essays. He was well known nationally and his writings were widely accepted by both white and black audiences. As a black man who was the son of former slaves, Dunbar wrote from a knowledgeable perspective of slavery conditions and oppression to the human spirit. He was able to interpret his people through his representation of black folk language, and his work helped to shape mainstream American cultural and intellectual thought more generally through his popular versions of the African-American experience.
Dunbar was born In Dayton, Ohio in 1872. His father had escaped from slavery via the Underground Railroad and had fought in the Civil War for the Union army. Dunbar learned to read well from his mother and later he dedicated his first volume of poetry, Oak and Ivy, to her, thanking her for all her sacrifices, her love and her guidance. Dunbar would also honor his father in poems that took pride in heroic wartime achievements such as “Our Martyred Soldiers” and “The Colored Soldiers.”
As a young man in high school, Dunbar possessed an inquisitive mind, keen powers of observation, an excellent vocabulary and an aptitude for written expression. However, his search for employment following graduation was tinctured by his encounters with racism. He discovered that physical labor and domestic service were the only job opportunities available to him. For the next two years, Dunbar operated an elevator in downtown Dayton at four dollars a week despite his desire to attend Harvard to study law.
In 1893, Dunbar traveled to the World’s Columbian Exposition to sell copies of his book of poems,
Oak and Ivy.
It was here that he met Frederick Douglass, who befriended him and assumed a fatherly role towards the young poet. In 1895, Dunbar met Alice Ruth Moore, an aspiring black writer, and three years later he married her. Although Alice and Paul loved each other, this stormy relationship ended in divorce four years later. By this time Dunbar was addicted to alcohol (which had been prescribed for his tuberculosis) and the mood of his poetry had changed dramatically. He spent his last few days living with his mother, dying on February 6, 1906.
Although Dunbar enjoyed mild success with his
Oak and Ivy,
especially considering Douglass’s support, it was his second poetry collection,
Majors and Minors
that brought him into the national spotlight. On June 27, 1896, Harper’s Weekly carried a critical review written by William Dean Howells that suggested that the
was well done but that there was nothing very special in the book “except for the Negro face of the author. In his treatment of it”, Howells wrote, “he has been able to bring us nearer to the heart of primitive human nature in his race than anyone else has yet done.’’
These comments, biased they were, did help to create a larger audience for Dunbar’s poetry, but Dunbar grew to resent Howells and his remarks. It was comments like these that were to impose constraints on the Harlem Renaissance artists of the 1920’s, as the white readership insisted on stereotyped representations of the “Ole Negro” of the southern plantation.
Dunbar’s dialect poetry was usually written in a comic or sentimental way, and it was popular with whites as well as blacks. Langston Hughes would later use black dialect deliberately as he struggled with stereotypes in creating his original literature. Dunbar was highly successful in his dialect poetry, presenting it as the spoken language of the people.”
But some critics believed that in these poems Dunbar did not enhance his stature as a poet because he failed to create “the geography, the psychology and the imagery that must accompany a fundamental artistic decision of the kind.”
Dunbar’s poetry focused on numerous fundamental themes that poets to follow would develop as well. His poems included family situations, narrative histories influenced by slavery conditions, tragedy and death, miscegenation, anger and protest, black heroic themes that exhibited strong racial pride and vivid dreams of hope, opportunity and freedom. Poems such as “Sympathy” helped to design a “self veiling” mask that would gradually be removed as his poetry and that of others would become involved in the oral blues tradition.
By the time that Dunbar would write his second poem entitled “Sympathy”, he would still be a young poet of twenty-seven, but his career and his life would soon be over. By this time Dunbar could identify easily with the caged bird and his song:
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting -
I know why he beats his wing!
Dunbar often used humor as a mask to conceal his angriest messages. “We Wear The Mask” was one of his most famous poems.
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.
This poem provides an opportunity to view the inner circle of the black community as the poet lifts his mask momentarily. In daily life, the mask covers the face and eyes, the torn and bleeding hearts, and the “myriad subtleties”. The speaker of this poem cries out to Christ in pain but the world is oblivious to the black man’s struggle for equality.
Black heroic themes are developed nicely in pieces such as The Colored Soldiers”. As I have previously noted, Dunbar’s father had served with the Union army in the Civil War. This poem celebrates the heroism of black men like his father who fought bravely against the South, often volunteering for the most dangerous assignments.
Yes, the Blacks enjoy their freedom
And they won it dearly, too;
For the lifeblood of their thousands
Did the southern fields bedew
In the darkness of their bondage,
In the depths of slavery’s night,
Their muskets flashed the dawning
And they fought their way to light.
“The Haunted Oak”, a ballad, evinced strong racial pride and a spirit of protest. When Dunbar first sent the poem to be published, there were many who were amazed that it was accepted and printed, considering the topic and the time. I have read this poem several times and each time the poem is as visceral as the first. I especially like the portrayal of the speaker as the “oak” himself as the “guiltless man” is hanged.
I feel the rope against my bark,
And the weight of him in my grain,
I feel in the throe of his final woe
The touch of my own last pain.
And never more shall leaves come forth
On a bough that bares the ban;
I am burned with dread, I am dried and dead,
From the curse of a guiltless man.
Dunbar’s dialect poetry is rich with irony, understatement, hyperbole and caricature. In “When Malindy Sings”, Dunbar’s use of caricature renders whites more comical than blacks. He has his white audience assuming that they are more intelligent and biologically superior because they can read and write. But with all these assets, Miss Lucy can’t sing and no amount of practice will make Ode soun come right”.
G’way an’ quit dat noise, Miss Lucy —
Put dat music book away;
What’s de use to keep on trying
Ef you practise twell you’re gray
You cain’t sta’t no notes a-flyin
Lak de ones dat rants and rings
F’om de kitchen to de big woods
When Malindy sings.
Throughout the Harlem Renaissance, Dunbar remained a model for writers such as Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. As Arna Bontemps notes, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois were strongly drawn to Dunbar’s work. Dunbar’s pride in his “blackness,” his appreciation of his racial and cultural heritage, his loving depiction of black men and women, and his musical renditions of black folk language, strongly influenced subsequent generations of Black poets.