Day 3: Paul Laurence Dunbar

I looked up a line the other day but didn’t know its source.

Did a bit of digging and found the entire poem and wrote down the name of the man who wrote it – Paul Laurence Dunbar.

To be honest, I didn’t think twice about imagining him a white man, whose figurative language and poems I quite related to:

“Love is a guest that comes, unbidden, but having come, asserts his right.”

 Lyrics of Lowly Life, (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1896)

His name came up again. Funny, I thought. So I decided to find his biography and learn who this person was. taught me that Paul Laurence Dunbar was a poet, a novelist, a friend of Frederick Douglass who is also featured in this blog, a child of two former slaves and one of the most promising Black poet of his day.

He was a Black man.

Like Claude McKay, also a Black poet.

My point?

I assumed off the cuff that these people were white, as if Black people did not or don not read and write brilliant poetry & prose.

Shame on me.

However, through this series, I hope to educate myself as well as my readers on a heritage I have consistently tried to distance myself from.

This stereotype threat, (Steele & Aronson, 1995), which in intercultural circles adheres to the risk of confirming negative stereotypes associated with a particular people group.

For me, this meant almost anything relating to Black people. Nearly. I still loved Destiny’s Child. I wore Fubu shoes. I was even in a rapping contest in the 5th grade. But I never fully enjoyed my days running in track & field. I presented myself almost indifferent when we were made to read classics such as, To Kill A Mockingbird. I remember feeling something kin to second-hand embarrassment when someone did something stereotypically related to Black culture. 

Considering these feelings today, I’m ashamed to have pushed away this culture in an effort to almost erase any trace of it with association to me… 

The stereotype threat I have felt since childhood greatly influenced my ignorance of the “hidden figures” I will discuss over the month of February. This prevented me, from a good portion of my life, from learning, celebrating and teaching others about inspirational people who share my heritage. Thankfully, I have grown and come to appreciate each of them for their lessons, character and many, many accomplishments. 

That is also why #BlackHistoryMonth is so important.

Now, enough about me.

Paul has a remarkable story.  

Born to former slaves on June 27, 1872 in Kentucky, he gained notoriety quickly and became one of the first prolific African-American poets of his time,, earning national and international recognition.

By age fourteen, Dunbar was already a published poet in the Dayton Herald. He was also a featured editor during high school for a newspaper run by a classmate.

His story becomes awfully familiar, as like many bright, young students, Paul was not financially able to attend college, despite his talents. He worked, then, as an elevator operator and decided to self-publish a collection of poems, Oak & Ivy, in 1893 to help pay for publishing costs.

Paul found himself being invited by mentors and friends, including Frederick Douglass, to read works, impressing the audiences. Douglass regarded, Paul as “the most promising young colored man in America”. During the late 1800’s, Paul’s poems were already being featured in the New York Times. His recognition brought his much notoriety, enabling him to take part in a reading tour of England for six months in 1897. Shortly after, he presented his collection of poems in Lyrics of Lowly Life.

Returning to the United States, Dunbar married, took a job in The Library of Congress and wrote a novel, short story and two during this time. Battling tuberculosis, Paul decided to stop his work at the library and dedicate his time to writing. By the time of his death, at age 33, he had produced four novels, five collections of poetry and four short-stories. I would argue that although he lead a short life, it was inspiring and prolific.

Sharing his story and poems today gives me great joy. It gives me courage to realize my own dreams, despite any shortcomings along the way. I encourage you to check out a poem or two from him. 🙂



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