It’s the 117th anniversary of his passing.
Today, there are many poets whose work has made them household names. Writers like Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin are prolific, and we have become very familiar with their countless contributions that gave voice to our stories, struggles, and triumphs. However, there were other poets who came before them. Poets who laid the foundation for what a career in that lane could look like, using the early art form to build pathways and avenues for Black artists where there were previously none. One of those poets was Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872, the son of two formerly enslaved people, Poetry Foundation reports. He found his passion for poetry early, becoming class president and class poet while attending high school in Dayton, Ohio. Dunbar was the only Black person in his class and by the time he graduated, had already begun publishing poems in local outlets like the Dayton Herald and Dayton Tattler, a newspaper published by classmate Orville Wright, who later gained notoriety with brother Wilbur Wright for inventing the airplane.
Initially, Dunbar dreamed of having a career in law but took odd jobs to help support his widowed mother, allowing him more time to write. Over the years, Dunbar continued to write poems, short stories, and various newspaper articles, honing in on the particular dialect style that he would become known for. A chance meeting at a writer’s convention in 1892 would earn Dunbar public praise in the newspaper from writer James Newton Matthews. Matthew’s letter was reprinted in other papers and eventually caught the attention of poet James Whitcomb Riley, who also wrote a letter praising Dunbar. This inspired Dunbar to release his first collection of poems with the support of his friend Orville Wright, publishing Oak and Ivy (1893) through the Dayton-based company United Brethren Publishing.
That very first collection solidified Dunbar as a force to be reckoned with, two of his most popular poems, “Sympathy” and “Ode to Ethiopia,” being some of the first recorded that reflected the plight of Blacks in America and accomplishments of Black people. While his work earned him an opportunity to attend college, Dunbar declined, focusing on his literary career and expanding his imprint across the state of Ohio. He published his second collection, Majors and Minors, shortly after, using the sales to support himself. His standard English poems intrigued readers, but it was his unique dialect verse that earned him his fame, particularly among white readers.
Writer William Dean Howells wrote a glowing review of Dunbar’s work in Harper’s Weekly, calling him “the first man of his color to study his race objectively.” He then secured an agent, earning him more gigs and publishing opportunities, including a tour throughout England where he was able to solidify a British edition of his collection Lyrics of Lowly Life. When Dunbar returned to the U.S. in 1897, he began working as a clerk at the Library of Congress before marrying fellow writer Alice Ruth Moore. Over the years, Dunbar would continue publishing countless volumes of work, including a short story collection in 1898, his first novel later that year, and another verse collection in 1903.
By this time, Dunbar’s health was declining, the poet moving to Catskill in New York to recover. He continued to write during this time, putting pen to paper to recount Black life pre and post-slavery. While readers favored his more humorous tales as opposed to the accounts of abuse and injustice, it is the latter that has continued sparking renewed interest over the years in his work, some criticizing Dunbar for not taking a hard anti-racist stance. Dunbar continued to publish up until the end of his life, passing away on February 9, 1906 at the age of 33.
Over the years, Dunbar’s work has been critiqued, but his standing as one of the forefathers of Black poetry remains, many viewing his work as a key piece in the canon of Black literature.
“There is no poet, Black or nonBlack, who measures his achievement. Even today. He wanted to be a writer and he wrote,” said Nikki Giovanni.
May we remember the life of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Because of him, we can.
Here’s what you never learned about Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first Black nationally recognized poets. Photo Courtesy of Anthony Barboza/Getty Images