Many subsequent poets remarked on the huge impact his writing had on them, including especially James Weldon Johnson, James D. Corrothers, and William Stanley Braithwaite. Even as they praised Dunbar, several Black critics nevertheless criticized his use of "dialect poetry" (i.e., poetry written in African American Vernacular English ). Braithwaite, writing in The Crisis in 1919 [and reprinted in 1925], indicated that he felt Dunbar's use of AAVE was archaic; Johnson, writing in 1922, also criticized it. Countee Cullen, in Colors, published a poem called "For Paul Laurence Dunbar" that seemed to suggest Dunbar's life and work had been a failure. By contrast, however, James D. Corrothers published a Dunbar tribute poem that affirmed and celebrated the poet's contribution to African American culture. Many other African American poets also published tribute poems for Dunbar, which we have been collecting here. Overall, while Dunbar's legacy is contested, there is no doubt that he exerted a huge influence on African American writing, especially between 1900-1920.
While Dunbar has undeniably been a controversial figure, recent critics such as Geoffrey Jacques have argued that Dunbar himself was aware of the complexity of his position, as a popular poet who frequently performed before large audiences, both Black and white. For example, poems like "We Wear the Mask" highlight his self-consciousness with respect to the performance of Blackness in the Jim Crow era:
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,
Why should the world be over-wise.
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile,
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
Another poem that points to this self-consciousness might be "The Poet"
Below I will post the full text of as many of Dunbar's collections as possible, as well as a link to tribute poems for Dunbar by other poems. In the future, I hope to assemble a curated collection of highlights from Dunbar's works as a possible teaching module. --AS
He sang of life, serenely sweet,
With, now and then, a deeper note.
From some high peak, nigh yet remote,
He voiced the world's absorbing beat.
He sang of love when earth was young,
And Love, itself, was in his lays.
But ah, the world, it turned to praise
A jingle in a broken tongue.