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Margaret Washington : Paul Lawrence Dunbar-The People's Poet
Maragret Washington African Americans considered Paul Lawrence Dunbar a success. He was able to make a living from his work as a poet. And he was someone who spoke about the black community. He was a people's poet. He was the people's poet at the time. So he represented an element of success for African Americans because he was our artist and he made his living that way.

Dunbar was from Ohio. He was the son of former slaves. Both of his parents had been born in slavery. He graduated from high school, was in the very prominent literary society in the Dayton, Ohio high school. The only African American in it. And he didn't go to college because there was no money. His father died when he was 12 and his mother was a very strong-willed person, impoverished though she was. And she instilled in Paul this love of black life, and undoubtedly told Paul many stories of slave life, which is why he wrote with such power in the black vernacular. But Dunbar worked as an elevator operator after he got out of high school and wrote his poetry at night, until he finally got a break. And a number of people helped him with that break, among them, Frederick Douglass. So he had help along the way from blacks and whites. But he eventually was able to become a successful poet. By 1900 he was very successful.

Paul Lawrence Dunbar was a man of the people. I don't think there's any question about that. I think that was evident in the way he wrote. I think it was evident in the subjects he chose to write about. It was evident in where he lived. It was evident in his behavior during what was called the New York riot of 1900. It was Dunbar who went out among the African Americans and talked to them, tried to calm them down during this riot. Obviously African Americans had a tremendous amount of respect for Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

"A crust of bread and a corner to sleep in. A minute to smile and an hour to weep in. A pint of joy to a peck of trouble and never a laugh but the moan come double. And that is life.?

"A crust in a corner that love made precious and the smile to warm and the tears to refresh us. And joy seems sweeter when cares come after. And a moan is the finest of the foils for laughter. And that is life.?

"We wear the mask that guiles 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. Why should the world be over-wise and counting all our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us while we wear the mask.?

"Seeing my lady home last night, jump back honey, jump back. Held her hand and squeezed her tight, jump back honey, jump back. Heard her sigh a little sigh, seen a light gleam from her eye and a smile go flitting by, jump back honey, jump back. Heard the wind blow through the pine, jump back honey, jump back. Mockingbird was singing fine, jump back honey, jump back. And my heart was beating so when I reached my lady doo?, dat I couldn't bear to go, jump back honey, jump back.?

Dunbar wrote the dialect because he loved the dialect, because that was the people, that was us. That was our vernacular, this informal conversation, the way we spoke to each other. And it was obviously something that he had heard, given the fact that the majority of people, even in the urban centers of the north were from the South. Given the fact that both of his parents had been enslaved. So it was a dialect, it was vernacular that he was comfortable with. And it represented for him the soul of African American people. So I think that he represented African Americans in this vernacular because that's one aspect of the black community which he saw. But it's also important to recognize that that's not all Dunbar wrote. That's what whites focused on. And that's what William Dean Howells, who was the white man who catapulted him to fame, wanted to focus on. That's what Howells was interested in. African Americans loved Dunbar, they loved his dialect poetry, but they also loved the finer elements of life that Paul Lawrence Dunbar wrote. So he was far more diverse than people gave him credit for.

Paul Lawrence Dunbar wanted to be known as a poet. He certainly was an African American. He considered himself the people's poet. And as a man of letters he wrote about the African American experience. But he didn't really want to see himself and to have the world view him as just a black poet. Uh, and if you look at his writings, the vastness of the material that he wrote, he tried to express the vastness of life and to position the African American experience within life itself. And many of the experiences that he wrote about in the African American community could be the experiences of any community. He wrote about love, he wrote about life. He wrote about sorrow. So these were universal experiences and universal emotions. So Dunbar really wanted to be a poet, a man of letters. And yes, he was a black man and probably nobody at the time wrote about and described the black experience with more poignancy than he did. But he really wanted to be seen as a poet.

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