Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar photo

To possess the distinct writing voices of standard English of the classical poet and the evocative dialect of the turn-of-the-century black community in America, is an uncanny gift that set Paul Laurence Dunbar apart from even the great poets. Born in Dayton, Ohio in 1872, Paul was the son of Joshua and Matilda Dunbar, both natives of Kentucky.

Having heard poems read by the family she worked for when she was a slave, Matilda loved poetry and encouraged her children to read. Dunbar was inspired by his mother, and he began reciting and writing poetry as early as age 6. The only African-American in his class at Dayton Central High, Dunbar, rose to great heights in school. He was a member of the debating society, editor of the school paper and president of the school’s literary society. He published an African-American newsletter in Dayton, The Dayton Tattler, with the help of Orville and Wilbur Wright.

His first public reading, arranged by a former teacher, came on his twentieth birthday. His work often addressed the difficulties encountered by members of his race and the efforts of African-Americans to achieve equality in America. He was praised both by the prominent literary critics of his time and his literary contemporaries. An excellent illustration of his skill with dialect in poetry comes in, Negro Love Song:

Seen my lady home las’ night,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Hel’ huh han’ an’ sque’z it tight,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Hyeahd huh sigh a little sigh,
Seen a light gleam f’om huh eye,
An’ a smile go flittin’ by ’’
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Hyeahd de win’ blow thoo de pine,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Mockin’-bird was singin’ fine,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
An’ my hea’t was beatin’ so,
When I reached my lady’s do’,
Dat I could n’t ba’ to go ’’
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Put my ahm aroun’ huh wais’,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Raised huh lips an’ took a tase,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Love me, honey, love me true?
Love me well ez I love you?
An’ she answe’d, " ’Cose I do" ’’
Jump back, honey, jump back.

Dunbar published his first collection of poems, Oak and Ivy in 1892. Dunbar’s second book propelled him to national fame. Dodd Mead and Co., combined Dunbar’s first two books and published them as "Lyrics of a Lowly Life.

Dunbar had a short-lived marriage to Alice Ruth Moore. He worked at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. It is believed the library’s dust contributed to his worsening case of tuberculosis. He died at the young age of 33 at his mother’s home in Dayton 1906.Frederick Douglass called Dunbar, "the most promising young colored man in America."

Dunbar Author Biography written by Scott Haskins author of Sasha’s Way

Dunbar was briefly married to writer, educator, Alice Dunbar-Nelson.

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12 Books by Paul Laurence Dunbar