June 27 is the birthday of the first African American to achieve national prominence as a poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 – Feb. 9, 1906). Born in Dayton, Ohio, the son of ex-slaves attended the same high school as Orville Wright, who did not graduate, while Dunbar graduated with honors. Wright, along with his brother Wilbur, went on to achieve recognition as the nation’s first aviators, while Dunbar could only find employment as an elevator operator in one of the buildings in downtown Dayton. Despite such severe circumstances, Dunbar went on to become a celebrated author and man of letters
Although he lived to be only 33 years old, Dunbar, a versatile writer, produced an amazing collection of short stories, novels, librettos, plays, songs and essays as well as the poetry for which he became well known. During his lifetime, he was popular with black and white readers, and his works are appreciated today by both scholars and school children.
James Weldon Johnson in the preface to his Book of American Poetry made this observation:
"Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out as the first poet from the Negro race in the United States to show a combined mastery over poetic material and poetic technique, to reveal innate literary distinction in what he wrote, and to maintain a high level of performance."
In some circles of African American culture, Dunbar is recognized primarily for his skillful mastery of black dialect. Poemhunter.com suggests that the poet may have developed his keen ear for black dialect and the rhythms of black speech from his father, a Civil War veteran, who served in the famous 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
Dunbar’s first published collections of poetry Majors and Minors as well as Oak and Ivy contain some of his most recognized dialect pieces, including “A Negro Love Song” with the lilting refrain “Jump back, Honey, jump back” and the popular “When Malindy Sings.” One of Dunbar’s most celebrated traditional verse pieces is “Sympathy.” The closing line of this poignant work is the title that the late Maya Angelou, celebrated teacher, poet, author, selected for the first in her series of autobiographies I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opens,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals--
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats its wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting--
I know why he beats his wing!
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,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings--
I know why the caged bird sings!
Click here to view an article written as a tribute to Maya Angelou with a reference to the Dunbar poem.
Take a look at another article on Dunbar with an accompanying slide show of scenes from the life of the celebrated Black poet: Remembering Paul Laurence Dunbar: Noted black poet