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Paul Laurence Dunbar


Paul Laurence Dunbar On the morning of his 24th birthday, the poetry of Paul Dunbar was the subject of a review written by literary critic William Dean Howells in Harper's Weekly. The review read, in part, "In more than one piece he has produced a work of art." The review also noted that Dunbar was the African American son of former slaves. To many who had read and admired Dunbar's lyrical and penetrating poems the fact that his skin was black came as something of a revelation. W.E.B. Du Bois, then a young classics professor at Wilberforce University, later recounted how he was "astonished to find that he (Dunbar) was a Negro." Dunbar was graced with the literary skills to be able to write in a voice that defied compartmentalization. His poetry straddled the line between what was considered "white English" and "black dialect." His admirers crossed all barriers of color also. In 1900, he was one of the most sought after speakers in the nation. Having recently returned from the mountains of Colorado to the Washington, DC home he shared with his wife and mother, Dunbar was looking forward to the heavy workload he faced in the spring of 1900. He had journeyed to the mountains seeking relief from the tuberculosis that had plagued him for much of his life.

Dunbar began writing while he was an elevator operator in the late 1890's. The publication of his first collection of poems cost him $125 of his hard-earned money, but brought him to the attention of admiring readers and editors. His public readings combined elements of high art and bluesy chorus, often resulting in whole audiences reciting his works aloud. While some tried to pigeonhole his work and identity, Dunbar displayed no interest in this preoccupation. Secure in his identity as an African American artist, Dunbar observed, "It is one of the peculiar phases of Anglo-Saxon conceit to refuse to believe that every black man does not want to be white."
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