Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), was born in Dayton, Ohio to parents who at the time, were newly freed slaves. Dunbar expressed a prodigious ability for poetry at the tender age of six. He grew up to excel in secondary school, becoming class president and editing the school newspaper. Later, he began publishing with the help of high school classmates, Orville and Wilbur Wright, who later helped to fund Dunbar's own press, The Dayton Tattler (1). Dunbar's first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy, published in 1893, attracted the attention of such figures as midwestern local colorist, James Whitcomb Riley, and publisher of The Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells. Publishing during a time in which remembrances of the antebellum South were becoming quite popular, Dunbar was immediately praised for his ability to capture the aesthetics of the African American folk through his dialect poetry. However, despite the indelible mark his contributions made in African American letters, modern-day critics have condemned Dunbar for having pandered to a white-controlled publishing industry. Still others champion Dunbar for his ability to maneuver within a limiting set of parameters, by publishing more openly critical pieces such as "The Mask," along with subtler, signifying poetry that reflected the nuances of the African American antebellum experience. Though James Weldon Johnson lauded Dunbar as one of the premiere African American poets and one his greatest influences--particularly for his dialect poetry--Dunbar still lamented that he had not achieved as much with his work as he would have liked. The poem above, simply entitled "The Poet," subtly betrays the poet's inner misgivings about his own dilemma (2). However Dunbar may have felt about his life's work, the following video features a modern poet who explains Dunbar's legacy as it has affected him.
Question for discussion: Watch the following video after having read some of Dunbar's poetry--particularly those dialect pieces that recall the Antebellum South. Considering the trends evolving at the time Dunbar was writing, such as the emerging "New Negro Movement," in which black artists and poets were discovering new, informed modes of self-expression, how might Dunbar's backward glance at the plantation south complement or inform such movements? How might Dunbar's experience and life work continue to inspire, inform, or influence us today?