Best known for his lively and often genial verse in a literary version of African American speech. He could “feel the Negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically.” Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) was the poet’s best selling book. Dunbar is frequently represented as a cautionary example of a black artist co-opted by white media hype which only postponed the bitter realization resonant in his most poignant line: “I know why the caged bird sings.”
Wrote from a regional point of view; folksy, nostalgic celebration of rural life and homey values. Adapted stereotypes towards more socially redemptive roles. Although his was a peculiar literary dialect and not linguistically accurate, it lent an air of apparent authenticity to the stories he told of enslaved individuals who were quaint and amusing, but also loving and courageous. Promoted a myth of benign southern race relations. Wearing the mask let Dunbar “mouth with myriad subtleties” truths that whites refused to confront face to face.
Dunbar’s parents were former Kentucky slaves who gave the writer much valuable material. Born in Ohio. The only black student in his high school but was high achieving and voted senior class president.
In 1893 Dunbar took out a loan to subsidize the printing of his first book, Oak and Ivy, a collection of fifty-six poems. It was popular due to the range of matter and mood and the level of maturity. Dunbar used a double-voiced strategy by switching back and forth between black dialect and Standard English. He tried to find ways to enlighten his readers without alienating them.
His most famous volumes of poetry were Majors and Minors (1895) and Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896). Reading tours enhanced Dunbar’s popularity. Earned a clerkship in the U.S. Library of Congress. Four books of short stories and four novels. Many stories spoke frankly about racial injustice in the South while others employed fairly stereotyped images of African Americans and drew little upon authentic A. A. culture. But his final book, The Sport of the Gods (1903), is important for addressing a major question for black Amerca at the turn of the century–the advantages and disadvantages of migration from the rural South to the urban North. The concerns behind this grim foray into urban realism also impelled Dunbar to publish “The Fourth of July and Race Outrages” in the New York Times in 1903, a sardonic attack on the myopic indifference of American patriotism to the race riots, lynchings, peonage, and disfranchisement of blacks in the South. By this time, however, Dunbar’s steadily worsening health, brought on by heavy drinking and tuberculosis, together with his harried finances, allowed him little time or energy to undertake serious new departure in his writing.
An Ante-Bellum Sermon [poem in the vernacular in my own words]
We have gathered to comfort each other.
The Lord sent Moses to talk to the Pharaoh. Tell him to let the people go.
The Pharaoh better listen or I’ll beat his ass
No matter your battles, the Lord will come to help you
The Lord is strong when he dons his armour, but I’m talking about the old days
The Lord loved Israel, but that did not lessen the amount of love he has to give
I judge these people in the bible by their acts
The Pharaoh believed in slavery, but every mother’s son is free
So-called Christians who accept slavery are not reading their bibles correctly
Since the beginning of time, the Lord has said his self-same free should belong
to every man
Our modern-day Moses is coming; I can hear his feet.
Don’t start bragging or getting too big for your britches
When we become free we will praise Jesus.
For now, let us pray.
We Wear the Mask [poem in Standard English put into my own words]
To the public, we wear a mask that hides all our true thoughts and emotions. We lie and smile.
The world doesn’t need to know every little thing about us.
We smile, but inside we are crying.
We sing, but our road is long.
Let the world think what it will. “We wear the mask!”
Sympathy [poem in Standard English in my own words]
I know what a caged bird feels when spring is emerging.
I know why a bird will harm himself and bleed trying to escape his cage.
When the beat-up bird sings it is not for joy; it is a prayer to heaven to let it be free.