We Wear The Mask

The Short Life of Paul Laurence Dunbar

By Tim Walker


“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.”

From “We Wear the Mask”,
by Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1896

Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first African-American poet to make a living from his writing, the first African-American writer to receive both national and international acclaim for his work, was born and raised here in Dayton, Ohio. The son of two former slaves, he was educated here, wrote and was discovered here, and he died here from tuberculosis at the young age of 33. His work, already praised during his short lifetime, has been studied, reprinted and read ever since, and has influenced countless writers from all walks of life. Upon his death, he was referred to as the “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race”.

Great writers can and do come from any race, any gender, and any place, and a number of 20th Century black American writers have certainly left their mark on our modern literary landscape. Authors such as Alice Walker, who won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for her epistolary novel The Color Purple, Langston Hughes, poet of the Harlem Renaissance, and the list goes on: Richard Wright, Walter Mosley, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, a brilliant writer who was awarded the ultimate accolade, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

All great writers — not great black writers, mind you. Just great writers, all of whom are black men and women, all of whom talk and write eloquently about the shared experience of being human, of being black, of being alive. Without the influence of Paul Laurence Dunbar, their careers and today’s literary landscape might have been markedly different. Maya Angelou’s groundbreaking book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings even takes its well-known title from a line in the poem “Sympathy,” written by Mr. Dunbar.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born at his grandmother’s home at 311 Howard Street in Dayton on June 27, 1872. According to Felton O. Best’s book Crossing the Color Line: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Dunbar’s great-grandmother, Becca Porter, had been manumitted, or emancipated, by a Dayton abolitionist back in the 1840s and her daughter, Dunbar’s grandmother, came to Dayton in the 1850s after being released from her master — a Kentucky slave holder. Dunbar’s father had escaped from slavery in Kentucky and traveled to Canada via the Underground Railroad, and was also a veteran of the American Civil War, having served in both the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment.

Dunbar’s mother, Matilda Glass, was born in 1844 in Shelbyville, Kentucky, and was owned by David Glass, a wealthy planter there, until the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. While a slave, she married, and later gave birth to two children. After separating from her husband she and her two boys moved to Dayton in the spring of 1866.

It was in Dayton that Matilda met and married Joshua Dunbar. Dunbar’s parents had been married for six months when he was born, and they began having marital problems a few months later. After the birth of their daughter, whose arrival wasn’t embraced by her father, Matilda took the four children and left him. Dunbar’s sister, Elizabeth, died a couple of years later at the age of 2, and his father Joshua died in 1884 when Paul was only 12 years old.

Dunbar’s mother felt that, from an early age, he was destined for greatness. Dunbar was the only African-American student during the years he was attending Dayton’s Central High School, and he was very active in the student body. He was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, the “High School Times,” in 1891, and he was class president, and was president of the literary Philomathean Society — the first black man to hold any of these positions. He wrote his first poem at age 6 and gave his first public recital at age 9.  His mother Matilda assisted him in his schooling, having learned how to read expressly for that purpose. She often read the Bible with him and hoped that he might become a minister.

Dunbar’s first professionally published poems, “Our Martyred Soldiers” and “On The River,” were published in Dayton’s The Herald newspaper in 1888 when he was 16. In 1890, Dunbar wrote and edited Dayton’s first weekly African-American newspaper, The Tattler, which was printed by the fledgling company of his high school acquaintances, Wilbur and Orville Wright. The paper lasted for 6 weeks.

When his formal schooling ended in 1891, Dunbar found that no one would employ him in a job that required him to use his intellectual ability, so he took a job as an elevator operator in the Callahan Building in Dayton, earning a salary of four dollars a week. This was substantially less than that earned by his white co-workers. The next year, Dunbar asked the Wrights to publish his dialect poems in book form, but the brothers did not have the facility to do so and Dunbar was directed to the United Brethren Publishing House which, in 1893, printed Oak and Ivy, his first collection of poetry. Dunbar subsidized the printing of the book himself, earning back his investment in two weeks by selling copies to people personally, often to passengers on his elevator. The larger section of the book, the “Oak” section, consisted of traditional verse, while the smaller section, the “Ivy”, featured light poems written in the black dialect of the times.

Dunbar’s participation in the 1892 Western Association of Writers Conference in Dayton brought him into contact with James Whitcomb Riley, the “Hoosier Poet” who was the most popular poet in the United States at that time. Both Riley and Dunbar wrote poems in Standard English and dialect. Despite frequently publishing poems and occasionally giving public readings, Dunbar had difficulty financially supporting himself and his mother. Many of his efforts were unpaid and he was a reckless spender, leaving him in debt by the mid-1890s.

On June 27, 1896, the novelist and critic William Dean Howells published a favorable review of Dunbar’s second book Majors and Minors in Harpers Weekly magazine. Howells’ influence made Dunbar famous overnight and brought national attention to his writing. Though he saw “honest thinking and true feeling” in Dunbar’s traditional poems, he particularly praised Dunbar’s dialect poems. With his new-found international literary fame, Dunbar collected his first two books into one volume, Lyrics of Lowly Life, for which Howells wrote an introduction.

Dunbar maintained a lifelong friendship with the Wright brothers. He was also associated with Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and Brand Whitlock (who was described as a close friend). He was honored with a ceremonial sword by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Dunbar wrote a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, five novels and a play. He also wrote lyrics for “In Dahomey” — the first musical written and performed entirely by African-Americans to appear on Broadway in 1903.  The musical comedy successfully toured England and America over a period of four years — one of the more successful theatrical productions of its time. His essays and poems were published widely in the leading journals of the day including Harper’s Weekly, the Saturday Evening Post, the Denver Post and a number of other publications.

Dunbar traveled to England in 1897 to recite his works on the London literary circuit. He met the young black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who set some of his poems to music and who was influenced by Dunbar to use African and American Negro songs and tunes in future compositions.

After returning from England, Dunbar married Alice Ruth Moore on March 6, 1898, a teacher and poet from New Orleans whom he had first met three years earlier. Dunbar called her “the sweetest, smartest little girl I ever saw.” A graduate of Straight University (now Dillard University), her published works include Violets and Other Tales and The Goodness of St. Roque. She and her husband also wrote books of poetry as companion pieces. An account of their love, life and marriage was depicted in a play by Kathleen McGhee-Anderson titled Oak and Ivy.

Dunbar took a job at the Library of Congress in Washington in October 1897. He and his wife moved to Washington, D.C.  However, at the urging of his wife, he soon left the job to focus exclusively on his writing, which he promoted through public readings.

In 1900, Dunbar was diagnosed with tuberculosis and his doctors recommended drinking whiskey to alleviate his symptoms, and he moved to Colorado with his wife on the advice of his doctors. Dunbar and his wife separated in 1902, but they never divorced. Depression and declining health drove him to a deepening dependence on alcohol, which further damaged his health. He moved back to Dayton to be with his mother in 1904, and then died shortly thereafter from tuberculosis on February 9, 1906, at the age thirty-three, and was laid to rest in Woodland Cemetery in Dayton.

Much of Dunbar’s work was authored in conventional English, while some was rendered in the African American dialect of the time period. Dunbar was always suspicious that there was something demeaning about the marketability of his dialect poems. One interviewer reported that Dunbar told him, “I am tired, so tired of dialect,” though he is also quoted as saying, “my natural speech is dialect” and “my love is for the Negro pieces.”

Though he credited William Dean Howells with promoting his early success, Dunbar was dismayed by his demand that he focus on dialect poetry. Angered that editors refused to print his more traditional poems, he accused Howells of “[doing] me irrevocable harm in the dictum he laid down regarding my dialect verse.” Dunbar, however, was continuing a literary tradition that used Negro dialect and his notable predecessors included Mark Twain and Joel Chandler Harris.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African-American poet to earn nation-wide acknowledgement for his work. The New York Times called him “a true singer of the people — white or black.” In his preface to his 1931 The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson criticized Dunbar’s dialect poems for fostering stereotypes of blacks as comical or pathetic and reinforcing the restriction that blacks write only scenes of plantation life.

Writer Maya Angelou titled her groundbreaking 1969 autobiographical book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings after a line from Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy,” at the suggestion of her friend, jazz musician and activist Abbey Lincoln. Angelou named Dunbar an inspiration for her “writing ambition” and uses his imagery of a caged bird like a chained slave throughout much of her writings. In 2002, Dr. Molefi Kete Asante listed Paul Laurence Dunbar on his list of the 100 Greatest African-Americans.

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s work has been an inspiration for countless writers and poets, both during his life and after his death. A proud son of Dayton and one who struggled during his lifetime, his work and legacy remain something for which all of us should be grateful.

“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, when his wing is bruised and his bosom sore; when he beats his bars and he would be free, it is not a carol of joy or glee, but a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core.” — Paul Laurence Dunbar

Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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