27, 1872 - February 9, 1906
Free-lance newspaper writer
Employee at the Library
of Congress in Washington, D.C.
"His theology was one of humanism; he had little sympathy with dogma, and
hated hypocrisy." (Brawley, 75)
June 27, 1872 - Paul Laurence
Dunbar is born in Dayton, Ohio
1874 - His parents separate
1878 - Dunbar, age 6,
starts to write and recite poetry
1890 -Published the
with the help of Orville Wright
June 27, 1892 - Dunbar
gives first public reading
1892 - His first collection,
Oak and Ivy, is published
1893 - Dunbar recites
his work at the World's Fair
1895 - He moves to Toledo,
1897 - He travels to England
to recite his works
March 6, 1898 - Dunbar
marries Alice Ruth Moore (he is 25, she is 22)
1902 - Dunbar and Alice
Ruth Moore separate
1904 - He returns to Dayton
to be with his mother
February 9, 1906 - Dunbar
dies at age 33
1936 - The Ohio Legislature
dedicates the Dunbar
house as a memorial
to Paul Laurence Dunbar
1938 - The home is opened
to the public
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.
Wear The Mask
wear the mask that grins and lies,
hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
debt we pay to human guile;
torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
mouth with myriad subtleties.
should the world be over-wise,
counting all our tears and sighs?
let them only see us, while
wear the mask.
smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
thee from tortured souls arise.
sing, but oh the clay is vile
our feet, and long the mile;
let the world think other-wise,
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.
Had His Dream
his dream, and all through life,
up to it through toil and strife.
fore'er before his eyes,
for him all his skies:
calm and listless vault of blue
on its hopeful hue,
every passing beam --
hard and failed at last,
sails too weak to bear the blast,
raging tempests tore away
sent his beating bark astray.
what cared he
wind or sea!
"The tempest will be short,
will come to port."
through every cloud a gleam --
PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR: Poet of his People. Chapel Hill: The University
of North Carolina Press, 1936. 75.
Gibson, Boyd E., ed. "Still
Going On Exhibit." The Digital Scriptorium. 1995. http://odyssey.lib.duke.edu/sgo/texts/dunbar2.htm
Sci, LaVerne, ed. "Dunbar
House State Historic Site." LWF Publications. http://www.coax.net/people/lwf/dunbar.htm
Columbus, Thomas M., ed.
"Welcome to the Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar." Black Alumni Chronicle
of the University of Dayton. 1998. http://www.udayton.edu/~dunbar/
Written by Connie Jean Howard
Edited by Mark Canada, Ph. D.