On this day in 1872, the writer Paul Laurence Dunbar was born. I am fascinated with the stories of African Americans after the Civil War. They were a particularly hungry people, socially and culturally—especially concerned about making better lives for their children. Both Dunbar’s parents had been slaves in Kentucky. But his father escaped during the war and then fought in it for the Union. Both moved to Ohio where Paul Laurence was born. To give you some idea of the hopes and dreams that parents had, his mother learned to read for the very purpose of teaching him to read. I know parents of all times care deeply about their children, but that strikes me as notably heroic.
Of course, despite the wishes for and work on behalf of their children, the white population of the United States was extremely stingy in the chances it provided to them. Dunbar was lucky, in terms of his talent, personality, and environment. He was, for example, the only African American student at his high school. I think that situation worked for Dunbar: one black student is interesting, not frightening to the white majority. And that’s especially true when you are pious and generally brilliant.
Dunbar started publishing while still in high school. And at the age of 18, “Dunbar wrote and edited The Tattler, Dayton’s first weekly African-American newspaper. It was printed by the fledgling company of his high-school acquaintances, Wilbur and Orville Wright.” It helps to know people with money, and the Wright brothers would be lifelong friends. Dunbar’s early career sounds like the careers of writers in the 16th century with rich men providing assistance to him. But truthfully, I’m not sure that’s really very different from the way things work today. Dunbar’s career seems to demonstrate that an enormous amount of talent and a fair amount of luck will take you far.
At first, he was exclusively a poet. But in his mid-20s, he began writing short stories and novels. Although he died of tuberculosis at just 33 years of age, in addition to an enormous amount of poetry, he managed to publish four books of short stories and four novels. He also wrote the lyrics to the historical Broadway musical In Dahomey, which is noted for being the first with an all African American cast. It was a modest hit on Broadway and then toured the United Kingdom and then the United States for four years.
Project Gutenberg was collected all of his poems, two of his short story collections, two of his novels, and a short essay. He wrote poetry in both dialect and standard English. The dialect poems are remarkable for their beauty and accessibility (that could just be me, since I normally have problems with dialect). Here is a short poem in standard English called “Encouraged,” that could mean many things but somehow to me seems like a poem for his mother:
Had you despised me then I must have failed,
But since I knew you trusted and believed,
I could not disappoint you and so prevailed.
Happy birthday Paul Laurence Dunbar!