LIANE HANSEN, host:
Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Paul Laurence Dunbar. He was the first African-American poet to make his living through his writing. Dunbar's work influenced many black writers of the Harlem Renaissance and he was well known during his lifetime for the poetry he wrote in black dialect. Those poems have caused some discomfort to black authors over the years.
Independent Producer Aileen LeBlanc has this profile of Dunbar's life and his work.
AILEEN LeBLANC reporting:
The Dunbar house on the west side of Dayton is today very much as it was when Paul Laurence Dunbar and his mother lived here. On the day he died in 1906, Dunbar lay on a daybed in front of the compact fireplace. The story goes that many people gathered here in the family room because word went out that Dunbar was gravely ill with tuberculosis and that he might recite one more time.
LaVerne Sci is the Dunbar House site manager.
Ms. LaVERNE SCI (Dunbar House Site Manager): In the arms of his mother, in the presence of his minister and his physician, he started reciting the 23rd Psalm. And when he got to the line, Yea though I walk through the valley and shadow of, his eyes closed on the word death.
LeBLANC: He was 33 years old. He had written four novels, four books of short stories, one opera, two musicals, four plays, many essays and 12 books of poetry. One of his best-known poems, A Negro Love Song, is performed here by Herbert Martin poet in residence at the University of Dayton.
Mr. HERBERT MARTIN (Poet): (Reading) "Seen my lady home las' night, Jump back, honey, jump back. Hel' huh han' an' sque'z it tight, Jump back, honey, jump back. Hyeahd huh sigh a little sigh, Seen a light gleam f'om huh eye, An' a smile go flittin' by Jump back, honey, jump back. Hyeahd de win' blow thoo de pine, Jump back, honey, jump back. Mockin'-bird was singin' fine, Jump back, honey, jump back. An' my hea't was beatin' so, When I reached my lady's do', Dat I could n't ba' to go Jump back, honey, jump back. Put my ahm aroun' huh wais', Jump back, honey, jump back. Raised huh lips an' took a tase, Jump back, honey, jump back. Love me, honey, love me true? Love me well ez I love you? An' she answe'd, 'Cose I do' Jump back, honey, jump back."
LeBLANC: This was the kind of language Dunbar grew up hearing. He was the son of two former slaves. And yet it is this very language from which many African Americans wanted to distance themselves because it tied them to the past. But Dunbar loved it and continued to write it in tandem with his standard English works, often hiding a second meaning in the poems.
Professor Joanne Braxton of the College of William & Mary reads an excerpt from Dunbar's An Ante-Bellum Sermon.
Professor JOANNE BRAXTON (English Professor, College of William & Mary): (Reading)"But when Moses wif his powah Comes an' sets us chillun free, We will praise de gracious Mastah Dat has gin us liberty; An' we'll shout ouah halleluyahs, On dat mighty reck'nin' day, When we'se reco'nised ez citiz' Huh uh! Chillun, let us pray!"
He is deconstructing that stereotype really of the black minister who was preaching pie in the sky in a better day to come. He never considered the dialect poetry to be in any way inferior to his standard English poetry. Even humor, perhaps especially humor, is healing, and in this case the lesson is taught that enslaved persons were not always submissive and that they were able to speak to multiple audiences at once.
LeBLANC: In effect, Dunbar was presenting one face to white readers of the time while slipping in a message for his people. In another poem, he is more direct, using standard English to address what blacks have to do to get along in a white man's world. Dr. Herbert Martin recites the last portion of We Wear the Mask, published in 1895.
Dr. HERBERT W. MARTIN (Author):
"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 dream otherwise, We wear the mask!"
LeBLANC: Paul Laurence Dunbar was the only African-American in his high school class, one he shared with Orville Wright. Soon after graduating, he talked the Wright brothers, who were printers then, into publishing the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper which Dunbar wrote for the black community. He wanted to go to law school, but he couldn't even get a job as a clerk, so he ended up operating an elevator in a downtown bank building. From his post he took orders for his first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy. But by the time Dr. Joanne Braxton wanted to teach a course on Dunbar, 25 years ago, virtually all of his books were out of print.
Professor BRAXTON: I was unable to find Dunbar poetry for my students. I was unable to buy books of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poetry. The Complete Poems was completely out of print. And one day I'm standing over the Xerox machine, Xeroxing these poems, and I suddenly realize that the copyright is out of date.
LeBLANC: So she edited The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, which was published in 1993. Since then other books have come out, including two by Herbert Martin, one of Dunbar's poetry and one focusing on essays, plays and short stories. When Dunbar died, he was a popular writer with both whites and blacks. In the 1920s, a new generation of poets, including Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown, embraced the vernacular of their own time and place, urban America.
Dunbar is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Dayton, just a few strides from the graves of the Wright brothers. A weeping willow grows nearby. Dr. Herbert Martin reads from the tombstone Dunbar's A Death Song, one of his dialect poems.
"Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass, Whah de branch'll go a-singin' as it pass. An' w'en I's a-layin' low, I kin hyeah it as it go Singin', 'Sleep, my honey, tek yo' res' at las'.'"
LeBLANC: Martin says it's time that readers see the humanity in Paul Laurence Dunbar's dialect poetry. Apparently others agree with him. Next month, Stanford University hosts a three-day conference on Dunbar. For NPR News, I'm Aileen LeBlanc.