Paul Laurence Dunbar
June 27, 1872 - February 9, 1906

His Life
Occupations Homes Religion Chronology

His Legacy
    Famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass once called Paul Luarence Dunbar "the most promising young colored man in America."  And by the time of his death, Dunbar was known, not only in America, but in Europe as well for his writing.  He was born into poverty, and his mother (an ex-slave) and his father were separated when Dunbar was only 2 years old.  However, it was his mother's love for songs and storytelling that inspired young Paul to read and write himself.  At the age of 6, he began to write and recite poetry, and by the time he was twenty, he had already published a newsletter and was publishing his first collection of poetry.  At only 21 years of age, he was asked to recite his work at the World's Fair.
    Dunbar wrote his poetry in both standard English and dialect, but it was the dialect poetry that readers preferred.  Some examples of his extraordinary dialect poems are "The  Ante-bellum  Sermon" and " When Dey 'Listed Colored Soldiers."  He was mainly concerned, in his writing, with issues that related to his people and his culture, but he wrote in such a way that it was attractive to white audiences as well.  As a matter of fact, Boyd E. Gibson wrote about Dunbar:  "While Dunbar was not the first African American poet and writer, he was the first to achieve a national reputation and to be accepted by both white and black audiences."
    When Dunbar died at the age of 33 from an ongoing bout with tuberculosis, he had written 12 books of poetry, as well as a play, five novels, and four books of short stories.  He had also been published in many magazines and journals.  After his death, his Dayton house became a landmark open to the public, and he had a high school named after him.  Even today his legacy lives on as many writers and students and the general public find truth and history in his works.

His Literature
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 over-wise,
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 think other-wise,
We wear the mask!

    "We Wear the Mask" is probably Dunbar's most famous piece of poetry.  The author is writing about the "mask" that human beings wear in front of other human beings to disguise any pain, sadness, or turmoil that they may be going through at the time.  Dunbar is saying that humans often are not honest with those around them about their feelings because it is easier to make them believe everything is okay, and how true he is!  He is also stating in the third stanza that we call on God when no one else is looking and we are in pain, but we would rather let the world see us smile. . . . we would rather wear the mask.
    The form Dunbar uses to write this poem is iambic tetrameter.  The rhyme scheme is AABBC.  The words he chooses to use to get his point across are used well.  For instance, in the first two lines he describes the mask as having a grin and being a liar.  The choice of his words in these first two lines paints a picture of a deceitful face, one that is not honest.  Since, normally, deceit and dishonesty are seen as bad things, the audience is left with the feeling that this mask that we wear is not a good thing.  The audience feels right from the start that we are wrong to wear this mask because it lies.  Then in the third stanza, he talks of our struggle behind the mask: "We sing, but oh the clay is vile beneath our feet,  and long the mile. . . ."  In this line, he could be talking of the struggle of the African-American race with slavery and oppression, since historically we are taught of the Underground Railway and the escapes by many slaves on foot, and also about the old Negro spirituals that were popular with the slaves at this time.  And in the last line he writes "let the world dream otherwise, we wear the mask!"  It's interesting that he uses the word "Dream" because when we think of dreams we think of something that is not real, and that is what Dunbar is trying to get across to the reader--that this great facade, the "mask," is not real, and the world is only seeing us in a disguise.
He Had His Dream

He had his dream, and all through life,
worked up to it through toil and strife.
Afloat fore'er before his eyes,
It colored for him all his skies:
The storm-cloud dark
Above his bark,
The calm and listless vault of blue
Took on its hopeful hue,
It tinctured every passing beam --
He had his dream.

He labored hard and failed at last,
His sails too weak to bear the blast,
The raging tempests tore away
And sent his beating bark astray.
But what cared he
For wind or sea!
He said, "The tempest will be short,
My bark will come to port."
He saw through every cloud a gleam --
He had his dream.

  Written by Connie Jean Howard
  Edited by Mark Canada, Ph. D.
  Mark Canada