Born the son of former slaves, Paul Laurence Dunbar carved out a significant place for black American voices in literature. Considered the first major African-American poet, Dunbar distinguished himself as a master of works in the American Romantic tradition as well as a pioneer in the use of black dialect. In addition to his volumes of poetry, Dunbar also earned recognition for his prose work, writing a series of short stories and novels that depicted the African-American experience in the late 19th century. His notable friends included flight pioneer Orville Wright, who hired a 16-year old Dunbar to edit his Dayton newspaper, and Frederick Douglass.
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 moans come double;
And that is life!
A crust and a corner that love makes precious,
With a smile to warm and the tears to refresh us;
And joy seems sweeter when cares come after,
And a moan is the finest of foils for laughter;
And that is life!
Storm and strife and stress,
Lost in a wilderness,
Groping to find a way,
Forth to the haunts of day
Sudden a vista peeps,
Out of the tangled deeps,
Only a point—the ray
But at the end is day.
Dark is the dawn and chill,
Daylight is on the hill,
Night is the flitting breath,
Day rides the hills of death.
In his own time, Dunbar was primarily celebrated for his works in the regional black dialect. However, contemporary scholars and readers now debate their poetic merits. Were these literary curiosities that reinforced antebellum stereotypes or authentic depictions of black culture? Despite this controversy around his use of stylized black dialogue — though it should be noted that his mentor, James Whitcomb Riley, wrote in regional Midwestern dialect, and that Robert Burns is still admired for his Scottish vernacular poems — his more conventional poems alone would have earned Dunbar his place in the American canon. The two poems below illustrate Dunbar’s contrasting styles.
A Death Song
Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass,
Whah de branch ‘ll go a-singin’ as it pass.
An’ w’en I ‘s a-layin’ low
I kin hyeah it as it go
Singin’, “Sleep, my honey, tek yo’ res’ at las’.”
Lay me nigh to whah hit meks a little pool,
An’ de watah stan’s so quiet lak an’ cool,
Whah de little birds in spring,
Ust to come an’ drink an’ sing,
An’ de chillen waded on dey way to school.
Let me settle w’en my shouldahs draps dey load
Nigh enough to hyeah de noises in de road;
Fu’ I t’ink de las’ long res’
Gwine to soothe my sperrit bes’
Ef I’s layin’ ‘mong de t’ings I’s allus knowed.
It may be misery not to sing at all
And to go silent through the brimming day.
It may be sorrow never to be loved,
But deeper griefs than these beset the way.
To have come near to sing the perfect song
And only by a half-tone lost the key,
There is the potent sorrow, there the grief,
The pale, sad staring of life’s tragedy.
To have just missed the perfect love,
Not the hot passion of untempered youth,
But that which lays aside its vanity
And gives thee, for thy trusting worship, truth—
This, this it is to be accursed indeed;
For if we mortals love, or if we sing,
We count our joys not by the things we have,
But by what kept us from the perfect thing.
Dunbar’s literary output is especially impressive considering his short life. He died in 1906 at the age of 33 having written numerous volumes of poetry, novels, short stories, songs, even lyrics to a Broadway musical. Indeed, the next generation of black American writers formed the Harlem Renaissance — which included his widow, Alice Dunbar Nelson — a literary movement distinguished itself by incorporating authentic black speech into classical poetry and prose styles. Yet even today, Dunbar’s work continues to exert its influence among black writers; the Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary poet Tyehimba Jess wrote “Dunbar-Booker Double Shovel” as an homage in Terrance Hayes’ “golden shovel” format. Jess’ work features words drawn from “We Wear the Mask”, one of Dunbar’s most famous poems, which is featured below next to “Philosophy”, a piece Dunbar crafted in dialect. Are the two works so different beneath the surface?
We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins 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,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
I been t’inkin’ ’bout de preachah; whut he said de othah night,
‘Bout hit bein’ people’s dooty, fu’ to keep dey faces bright;
How one ought to live so pleasant dat ouah tempah never riles,
Meetin’ evahbody roun’ us wid ouah very nicest smiles.
Dat ‘s all right, I ain’t a-sputin’ not a t’ing dat soun’s lak fac’,
But you don’t ketch folks a-grinnin’ wid a misery in de back;
An’ you don’t fin’ dem a-smilin’ w’en dey ‘s hongry ez kin be,
Leastways, dat ‘s how human natur’ allus seems to ‘pear to me.
We is mos’ all putty likely fu’ to have our little cares,
An’ I think we ‘se doin’ fus’ rate w’en we jes’ go long and bears,
Widout breakin’ up ouah faces in a sickly so’t o’ grin,
W’en we knows dat in ouah innards we is p’intly mad ez sin.
Oh dey ‘s times fu’ bein’ pleasant an’ fu’ goin’ smilin’ roun’,
‘Cause I don’t believe in people allus totin’ roun’ a frown,
But it’s easy ‘nough to titter w’en de stew is smokin’ hot,
But hit’s mighty ha’d to giggle w’en dey’s nuffin’ in de pot.