Example poetry

The 150th anniversary of the birth of black American poetry

When Orville Wright was born in 1871, his hometown of Dayton, Ohio had a population of about 30,500, less than half the size of Davis today. It is therefore surprising that in addition to Orville and his brother Wilbur – born four years earlier in Millville, Ind. – Dayton produced another great American, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Mr. Dunbar – who is named after at least seven American high schools, including one in Dayton – was born 150 years ago, on June 27, 1872. Like most black Americans of his generation, he was lifted out of poverty.

Paul’s parents were born into slavery in Kentucky. Her father, Joshua, escaped and came to Canada during the Civil War. He then volunteered to fight on behalf of the Union for the 55th Massachusetts Infantry, portrayed in the 1989 film, “Glory.”

Dunbar’s mother, Matilda, fled to Ohio in 1863 via the Underground Railroad, following President Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Shortly after the Dunbars’ second child was born, their marriage ended and Matilda raised Paul and his sister alone.

Granted, America was plagued by racism in the late 1800s. Still, Paul would have had no trouble getting along with his white peers who grew up in Dayton. He was the only African-American student during his time at Central High School.

Paul was exceptionally intelligent and industrious. He was president of the Central Literary Society, editor of his high school newspaper, and a member of the debate club.

His first poems were published in the local newspaper when he was only 16 years old. Due to poverty, Dunbar could not afford to go to college after high school, and due to prejudice, landing a job that paid a living wage was nearly impossible.

So, while continuing to write, he worked as an elevator operator in Dayton. At the age of 20, her first book of poetry, “Oak and Ivy”, was published in Dayton by the United Brethren Publishing House. The Wright brothers had suggested this local Methodist company to their friend.

Meeting potential customers in his elevator in the Callahan building, Dunbar supplemented his income by selling his book to them.

The Oak section of this early collection of poems was written in traditional verse; ivy in african american dialect. Throughout his career, he wrote in both standard English and dialect.

Coincidentally, the psychology professor who in 1973 coined the term “Ebonics” for the black American dialect, Robert Williams, was a graduate of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

In writing the black dialect, Dunbar was following the tradition of earlier white authors, including Mark Twain and Joel Chandler Harris (“Uncle Remus”). Many other African Americans followed in Dunbar’s footsteps. Yet, in his day and later, the use of dialectical English was considered by some to be stereotypical and pejorative.

Dunbar had mixed feelings about using a black-only voice. He believed it was an authentic way to tell their stories. However, he never wanted to be pigeonholed for writing only in dialect.

In his time and since, he has mostly been credited as a brilliant poet. It has been praised by literary journals and mainstream publications, including The New York Times. James Weldon Johnson, civil rights activist, ambassador, NYU professor and leader of the NAACP, wrote this eulogy of Dunbar in his 1922 anthology, “The Book of American Negro Poetry.”

“Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out as the first black poet in the United States to display a combined mastery of poetic material and poetic technique, to reveal an innate literary distinction in what he writes, and to maintain a high standard performance.

“He was the first to rise to a height from which he could have perspective on his own race. He was the first to objectively see his humor, his superstitions, his faults; the first to sympathize with his wounds in the heart, his desires, his aspirations, and to express them in a purely literary form.

From 1892 to 1906, Paul Dunbar wrote 12 collections of poetry. From 1898 to 1903, he wrote four novels and four collections of his short stories. While his poetry has been acclaimed, his fiction has been mostly, but not universally, panned.

During his short life, he rose to fame with readers, black and white alike, across the United States. He became friends with Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and many other great Americans of his time.

Dunbar has also received international acclaim. During a six-month tour of Britain, promoting his books, he met Queen Victoria and befriended the Afro-English conductor and composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

“Words of Love and Sorrow” is an example of a poem by Dunbar written in Standard English. Here’s a snippet I like:

The light was on the golden sand,
A glow on the sea;
My soul spoke clearly to your soul,
Your spirit answered me.

From the light that gilds the sands,
And shine on the sea,
But toil in vain to think,
The radiant soul of you.

“Lover’s Lane” demonstrates his poetry written in dialect:

Summah night and sighing breeze,
‘The Way of Long of Lovah;
Friends, shader-mekin’ trees,
‘The Way of Long of Lovah.
The Whites are done with it granny –
Me and ‘Mandy han’-in-han’
Struttin’ lak we owned de lan’,
‘The Way of Long of Lovah.

When Paul Laurence Dunbar was 28 in 1900, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, then a usually fatal disease. Her doctors recommended drinking whiskey for pain relief. They also suggested she move to Colorado, where the climate was dry and considered favorable to her ailing lungs.

Their prescription didn’t help. Dunbar went to the Rockies, but became a violent alcoholic before succumbing to tuberculosis at age 33. Despite his short life, social racism and other obstacles, his brilliant poetry lives on 150 years after his birth.

– Rich Rifkin is a resident of Davis; his column is published every two weeks. Contact him at [email protected]


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