Paul Laurence Dunbar

We smile, but, O 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! "

---Paul Laurence Dunbar---
from the poem, We Wear the Mask


Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first African-American poets to gain national recognition. Born in Dayton, Ohio, on June 27, 1872, to Joshua (an escaped slaves who served in the 5th Massachusetts Colored Calvary Regiment during the Civil War) and Matilda Murphy Dunbar, freed slaves from Kentucky.
After Dunbar's father left his mother supported her children by working in Dayton as a washerwomen. One of the families she worked for was the family of Orville and Wilbur Wright, with whom Dunbar attended Dayton's Central High School and was the only African-American in his class, he was a fine student. He was a member of the debating society, editor of the school paper and president of the school's literary society. He also wrote for Dayton community newspapers. Financially unable to attend college he worked as an elevator operator from 1891 to 1893, and spent most of his life in Dayton.

At the age of fourteen, Dunbar had poems published in the Dayton Herald. While in high school he edited the Dayton Tattler, a short-lived black newspaper published by classmate Orville Wright.

His parents separated shortly after he was born. But Dunbar would draw on their stories of plantation life throughout his writing career.
In 1892, a former teacher invited him to read his poems at a meeting of the Western Association of Writers, his work impressed his audience to such a degree that the popular poet James Whitcomb Riley wrote him a letter of encouragement.

Dunbar paid to publish his first book of poems, Oak and Ivory in 1893 and sold the book for a dollar to people riding in his elevator. Later that year, Dunbar moved to Chicago, hoping to find work at the first World's Fair. He befriended Frederick Douglass, who found him a job as a clerk, and also arranged for him to read a selection of his poems. Douglass said of Dunbar that he was "the most promising young colored man in America." With the help of friends, he published his second book, Majors and Minors in 1895, that gained him the enthusiastic support of William Dean Howells,( who wrote a preface to his third volume, Lyrics of Lowly Life in 1896). His poems written in standard English were called "majors," and those in dialect were termed "minors." Although the "major" poems outnumber those written in dialect, it was the dialect poems that brought Dunbar the most attention. The noted novelist and critic William Dean Howells gave a favorable review to the poems in Harper's Weekly.
By 1895, Dunbar's poems began appearing in major national newspapers and magazines, such as The New York Times. This recognition helped Dunbar gain national and international acclaim, and in 1897 he embarked on a six-month reading tour of England and previewed a new collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life. After returning to America, he received a clerkship at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and shortly thereafter married the writer Alice Ruth Moore. While living in Washington, Dunbar published a short story collection, Folks from Dixie, a novel entitled The Uncalled, and two more collections of poems. He also contributed lyrics to a number of musical reviews.

In 1898, Dunbar's health deteriorated; he believed the dust in the library contributed to his tuberculosis and left his job to dedicate himself full time to writing and giving readings. He published Lyrics of the Hearthside and Poems of Cabin and Field in 1899. Over the next five years, he would produce three more novels and three short story collections.
Dunbar and his wife separated in 1902, and shortly after he suffered a nervous breakdown and a bout of pneumonia. Although ill and drinking too much in attempt to soothe his coughing, he continued to publish various collections of poetry, short stories, and novels, including Lyrics of Love and Laughter in 1903, Howdy, Howdy, Howdy and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow in 1905, and was widely recognized as one of the first African-Americans to convert the experiences of their people into forms appreciated by the white majority. Dunbar produced twelve books of poetry, four books of short stories, a play and five novels. His health steadily deteriorated and he return to his mother's home in Dayton, Ohio, where he died on February 9, 1906, at the age of thirty-three.

When Malinda Sings
The Sparrow
We Wear the Mask
He Had His Dream


To read many more Dunbar poems:
Wright State Univ. Libraries

Then click Poetry Index

Some of his work includes:


After a Visit, Angelina, An Ante-Bellum Sermon, Beyond The Years, I, Beyond The Years, II, Beyond The Years, III, Blue, Border Ballad, A By The Stream, The Change Has Come, Changing Time, Charity, Colored Soldiers The, Common Things, Comparison, A Confidence, A Corn Stalk Fiddle, Creed and not a Creed, Confirmation, Conscience And Remorse, Curiosity, Dawn, Dead, A Death Song, The Delinquent Dely, The Deserted Plantation, The Dilettante: A Modern Type, Dirge, Disappointed, Discovered, Dr. James Newton Matthews, Mason Illinois, Dreamin' Town, A Drowsy Day, Encouragement, Ere Sleep Comes Down To Soothe The Weary Eyes, Evening, Expectation, Faith, A Florida Night, Frederick Douglass, Good-Night, Growin' Gray, Hope, How Shall I Woo Thee, Hymn, If, If I Could But Forget, Invitation To Love, Ione, I, Ione, II, Ione, III, Justice, Keep A-Pluggin' Away, The Lawyers' Ways, The Lesson, Longing, To Louise, A Love Letter, The Lover And The Moon, Lullaby, The Master-Player, The Meadow Lark, Melancholia, Miss Mary Britton, A Mystery, Nature And Art, I, Nature And Art, II, A Negro Love Song, Night Of Love, No Confidence, Nora: A Serenade, October, Old,On the Death of W. C., On the Road, On the River, One Life, Opportunity, Passion And Love, Path, The, The Plantation Child's Lullaby, A Plea, Poor Withered rose, Possum,A Prayer, Promise and Fulfillment, Protest, Puttin' The Baby Away, A Question, Reluctance, Retort, Retrospection, The Rising Of The Storm, The Rivals, Ships That Pass In The Night, Signs Of The Times, Soliloquy of a Turkey, The Song, The Spellin'-Bee, A Starry Night, Song Of Summer, A Summer's Night Sunset, The Turning of the Babies in the Bed, Two Songs, Unexpressed, Welcome Address, When De Co'n Pone's Hot, Whittier, Why Fades A Dream?, The Wind And The Sea, The Wooing, Worn Out,


1898 The Uncalled', 1900 The Love of Landry', 1901 The Fanatics', 1902 The Sport of the Gods,


[Poet's Corner Index]


Reference, Research and Source Information

Wright State Univ. Libraries
University of Dayton-Paul L. Dunbar

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