Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Grave at Woodland Cemetery in Dayton

For the past three weeks, I have had the privilege of taking part in an NEH Summer Institute entitled “Paul Laurence Dunbar & American Literary History.” Before beginning the institute, my only knowledge of Dunbar came from the Norton Anthology of African American Literature and a couple of other sources. There, all that appears from Dunbar are a few poems, most notably “We Wear the Mask.” Even though the headnote speaks about Dunbar’s prodigious output during his life, I did not fully realize its enormity until recently.

Most people tend to focus on Dunbar’s poetry, and even within that genre his dialect poetry. This could partly come from William Dean Howells’s initial review of Dunbar’s Majors and Minors , from children and community members reciting his poems, from the selections in literary anthologies, and from other factors. Dunbar’s dialect poetry only constitutes about one third of his entire poetic output, and his poetry collections do not even begin to make up his entire oeuvre. The focus on dialect poetry leads some to classify Dunbar as an accomidationist, lamenting the loss of the Southern past that relegated African Americans to servitude and slavery. This reputation caused him struggles during his life and well afterwards. However, a closer look at Dunbar highlights that he had a keen eye for pushing back against such representations, sometimes overtly but more than often subtly. We have to keep in mind that Dunbar had to navigate multiple audiences at once, specifically black and white audiences, in his writing.

Overall, Dunbar’s work includes four collections of short stories, four novels, musical lyrics, and numerous essays. Dunbar produced all of this, essentially, in the short span of roughly ten years. His second collection of poetry Majors and Minors appeared in 1896. Most of his work (short stories, poetry, novels, etc.) came after this collection. Within ten years, on February 9, 1906, at the age of 33, Dunbar died of tuberculosis. His legacy, however, continues to this day as the names of schools and community centers, in the classroom, and in the community as a whole through recitation. 

The next couple of posts will focus on some of the aspects of Dunbar’s work that I learned about over the past few weeks. For one, I will explore his song “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd?” and how Dunbar navigates the varying audiences he wrote for (specifically white and black). Another post will look Dunbar’s prose, zeroing in on his use of dialect to disrupt characters’ identities. The final post will talk briefly of the Hampton collections of Dunbar’s work that included photographs in relation E.W. Kemble’s illustrations from the short story collections. 

To help me think about these posts, I am interested in your responses to some of the following questions. Where did you encounter Dunbar initially? What works are you familiar with, if any, from Dunbar? Let me know about these things in the comments below.

Dunbar’s clothes at the Paul Laurence Dunbar House

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