I have been thinking a lot today about Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was arguably the world’s first famous African American poet. He was born in Dayton, Ohio to parents who were former slaves. His mother worked as a cleaning woman in the childhood home of the Wright Brothers. In fact, Orville, Wilbur, and Paul attended Dayton Central High School together, where Dunbar was the only black student in attendance. Growing up as close friends, the boys worked together on creating and editing several small newspapers, including Dayton’s first newspaper printed for its African American community: The Dayton Tattler.
His first book, a collection of poetry called Oak and Ivy, was received well but didn’t earn him much capital. He worked as an elevator operator to fill in the gaps, and would sell passengers copies for a dollar. His tenacity paid off, and his career exploded soon after. He was able to speak alongside Frederick Douglass at the 1893 World’s Fair, he toured Europe, and he published several novels, short stories, a play, and more volumes of poetry.
After gaining significant notoriety (Frederick Douglass called him “the most promising young colored man in America.”) he was offered a position a the Library of Congress, but the position only lasted a year. Paul was restless, and wanted more time to write. He and his wife, an extremely educated woman for the time who held a master’s degree, split a bit tumultuously, and he fell into a deep depression which was worsened by a case of tuberculosis. As is the sad lot of many artistic souls, he started drinking to excess and died young at 33 at his mother’s home in Dayton, just three years after his childhood friends launched the world’s first plane into the air.
His legacy is his spirit. The words he wove are now echoed in our American experience, and in the words of the poets and writers whose work is laced with his rich influence. Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison both claimed Paul Laurence Dunbar as a primary influence on their voices. Maya Angelou adapted the verse of his poem Sympathy to create the title of her masterpiece, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Here is the poem:
Sympathy, by Paul Laurence Dunbar
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 opes,
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!
Other famous writers born in Dayton, Ohio include Erma Bombeck, Natalie Clifford Barney, and me. 😉
You can visit Paul Laurence Dunbar’s homesite in Dayton, which has been preserved beautifully. His mother kept everything of his, and curated his world to preserve for the future. What a devoted, proud mother.