African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Paul Laurence Dunbar: Author Page

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was perhaps the most influential African American poet from the turn of the century period. He was extremely prolific, publishing twelve collections of original poetry in an all-too-brief span of time. Dunbar was born and raised in Ohio (and many of his papers are held at Wright State University); he also lived in Washington, DC, where he briefly attended Howard University. In 1900, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and moved with his wife, Alice Dunbar Nelson (born Alice Ruth Moore) to Colorado. Dunbar finally returned to Dayton, Ohio, where he passed away due to tuberculosis at the age of 33. 

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 of these critics nevertheless criticized his use of "dialect poetry" (written African American Vernacular English [AAVE]). 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.

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 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" 


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.

Below I will post the full text of as many of Dunbar's collections as possible. Down the road, I hope to assemble a curated collection of highlights from Dunbar's works, as well as a short collection of tribute poems written by other poets. 


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