Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio to parents who had escaped from slavery; his father was a veteran of the American Civil War, having served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment. His parents instilled in him a love of learning and history. He was a student at an all-white high school, Dayton Central High School, and he participated actively as a student. During high school, he was both the editor of the school newspaper and class president, as well as the president of the school literary society. Dunbar had also started the first African-American newsletter in Dayton.
He wrote his first poem at age 6 and gave his first public recital at age 9. Dunbar's first published work came in a newspaper put out by his high school friends Wilbur and Orville Wright, who owned a printing plant. The Wright Brothers later invested in the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper aimed at the black community, edited and published by Dunbar.
His first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy, was published in 1892 and attracted the attention of James Whitcomb Riley, the popular "Hoosier Poet". Both Riley and Dunbar wrote poems in both standard English and dialect. His second book, Majors and Minors (1895) brought him national fame and the patronage of William Dean Howells, the novelist and critic and editor of Harper's Weekly. After Howells' praise, his first two books were combined as Lyrics of Lowly Life and Dunbar started on a career of international literary fame. He moved to Washington, D.C., in the LeDroit Park neighborhood. While in Washington, he attended Howard University.
His wife Alice Dunbar Nelson was a famous poet as well. A graduate of Dillard University in New Orleans, her most famous works include a short story entitled "Violets". She and her husband also wrote books of poetry as companion pieces. An account of their love, life and marriage was depicted in a play by Kathleen McGhee-Anderson titled Oak and Ivy.
He kept a lifelong friendship with the Wrights, and was also associated with Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. Brand Whitlock was also described as a close friend. He was honored with a ceremonial sword by President Theodore Roosevelt.
He wrote a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, five novels, and a play. He also wrote lyrics for In Dahomey - the first musical written and performed entirely by African-Americans to appear on Broadway in 1903; the musical comedy played successfully toured England and America over a period of four years - one of the more successful theatrical productions of its time. His essays and poems were published widely in the leading journals of the day. His work appeared in Harper's Weekly, the Saturday Evening Post, the Denver Post, Current Literature and a number of other publications. During his life, considerable emphasis was laid on the fact that Dunbar was of pure black descent, with no white ancestors ever.
Dunbar's work is known for its colorful language and use of dialect, and a conversational tone, with a brilliant rhetorical structure.
Dunbar traveled to England in 1897 to recite his works on the London literary circuit. He met the brilliant young black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor who some of his poems to music and who was influenced by Dunbar to use African and American Negro songs and tunes in future compositions.
After his return, Dunbar took a job at the Library of Congress in Washington. In 1900, Dunbar was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and moved to Colorado with his wife on the advice of his doctors. Dunbar died at age thirty-three on February 9, 1906 from tuberculosis, and was interred in the Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio.
------ From PoemHunter.com
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 overwise,
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!
FOLKS ain't got no right to censuah othah folks about dey habits;
Him dat giv' de squir'ls de bushtails made de bobtails fu' de rabbits.
Him dat built de gread big mountains hollered out de little valleys,
Him dat made de streets an' driveways wasn't shamed to make de alleys.
We is all constructed diff'ent, d'ain't no two of us de same;
We cain't he'p ouah likes an' dislikes, ef we'se bad we ain't to blame.
Ef we'se good, we need n't show off, case you bet it ain't ouah doin'
We gits into su'ttain channels dat we jes' cain't he'p pu'suin'.
But we all fits into places dat no othah ones could fill,
An' we does the things we has to, big er little, good er ill.
John cain't tek de place o' Henry, Su an' Sally ain't alike;
Bass ain't nuthin' like a suckah, chub ain't nuthin' like a pike.
When you come to think about it, how it's all planned out it's splendid.
Nuthin's done er evah happens, 'dout hit's somefin' dat's intended;
Don't keer whut you does, you has to, an' hit sholy beats de dickens,--
Viney, go put on de kittle, I got one o' mastah's chickens.
A Farm House by the River
I know a little country place Where still my heart doth linger, And o'er its fields is every grace Lined out by memory's finger.
Back from the lane where poplars grew
And aspens quake and quiver,
There stands all bath'd in summer's glow
A farm house by the river.
Its eaves are touched with golden light
So sweetly, softly shining,
And morning glories full and bright
About the doors are twining.
And there endowed with every grace
That nature's hand could giver her,
There lived the angel of the place
In the farm house by the river.
Her eyes were blue, her hair was gold,
Her face was bright and sunny;
The songs that from her bosom rolled
Were sweet as summer's honey.
And I loved her well, that maid divine,
And I prayed the Gracious Giver,
That I some day might call her mine
In the farm house by the river.
Twas not to be - but God knows best.
His will for aye be heeded!
Perhaps amid the angels' bliss,
My little love was needed.
Her spirit from its thralldom torn
Went singing o'er the river,
And that sweet life my heart shall mourn
Forever and forever.
She dies one morn at early light
When all the birds are singing,
And Heaven itself in pure delight
Its bells of joy seemed ringing.
They laid her dust where soon and late
The solemn grasses quiver,
And left alone and desolate
The farm house by the river.
It may be misery not to sing at all,
And to go silent through the brimming day;
It may be misery never to be loved,
But deeper griefs than these beset the way.
To sing the perfect song,
And by a half-tone lost the key,
There the potent sorrow, there the grief,
The pale, sad staring of Life's Tragedy.
To have come near to the perfect love,
Not the hot passion of untempered youth,
But that which lies aside its vanity,
And gives, for thy trusting worship, truth.
This, this indeed is to be accursed,
For if we mortals love, or if we sing,
We count our joys not by what we have,
But by what kept us from that perfect thing.
For a comprehensive compilation of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar please visit: