Know Ohio: Paul Laurence Dunbar
Well, this month we honor a different kind of writing – poetry. That’s right, April is National Poetry Month, a time to celebrate the form of writing that relies on the rhythmic qualities of language, like rhyming, to stir emotion and imagination in readers. And, up next, Know Ohio correspondent Mary Fecteau tells us about one Ohio poet who made history.
Roses are red, violets are blue, and I’ve got a great Know Ohio for you! Ok, I’ll admit, I’m no poet. But this guy I’m about to tell you about definitely is – and he used the medium to change opinions and break barriers.
His name is Paul Laurence Dunbar, and he was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1872 to former slaves from Kentucky. Drawing from the stories his mother told him about plantation life, he began writing poems at age 6 and, by age 14, his work was already published in a local newspaper. And, as a student at Dayton’s Central High School, he teamed up with a friend and classmate you’ve probably heard of – Orville Wright – to publish The Dayton Tattler, a short-lived newspaper aimed at the black community in Dayton.
After high school, without the finances to continue his education, Dunbar was forced to take a job as an elevator operator. But, instead of giving up on his poetry, he worked at it even harder, using his meager salary to self-publish his first book of verse, Oak & Ivy – and he quickly earned back his investment by selling copies of his book personally, often to people riding on his elevator.
This tenacity, combined with his undeniable talent, caught the attention of both the literary community and black leaders. Famous abolitionist Fredrick Douglas called him, “the most promising young colored man in America.” With this support, Dunbar got to work publishing a dozen books of poetry – along with novels, short stories, lyrics, and a play.
With his incredible body of work, Dunbar became the first African American poet to earn national distinction. His vibrant poetry told stories of black life in America that hadn’t been heard before – and his style was more conversational. In fact, Dunbar wrote many of his poems in a dialect that was used mostly by working class black people.
Dunbar’s extraordinary life was cut short when he contracted tuberculosis and died at just 33 years old. But his work lives on. In fact, the title of Maya Angelou’s acclaimed autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is actually a line from a Dunbar poem. Paul Laurence Dunbar is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, close to his friend and early collaborator Orville Wright.
Website Article: Woodland Cemetery, Paul Laurence Dunbar
Website Article & Primary Sources: Ohio History Connection, Paul Laurence Dunbar
Website Article & Poems: American Academy of Poets, Paul Laurence Dunbar
Website Article & Links: Library of Congress, Paul Laurence Dunbar: Online Resources
Website & EBooks: Wright State University Libraries, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Biography & Poetry
Classroom Activities: Reading Rockets, National Poetry Month
Classroom Activities: Scholastic Teachers, Celebrate National Poetry Month