“Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out as the first poet from the Negro race in the United States to show a combined mastery over poetic material and poetic technique, to reveal innate literary distinction in what he wrote, and to maintain a high level of performance. He was the first to rise to a height from which he could take a perspective view of his own race. He was the first to see objectively its humor, its superstitions, its short-comings; the first to feel sympathetically its heart-wounds, its yearnings, its aspirations, and to voice them all in a purely literary form.” — as noted by James Weldon Johnson in the preface to his Book of American Negro Poetry.

excerpt from: THE PLACE WHERE THE RAINBOW ENDS

Oh, many have sought it,

And all would have bought it,

With the blood we so recklessly

spend;

But none has uncovered,

The gold, nor discovered

The spot at the rainbow’s end.

They have sought it in battle,

And e’en where the rattle

Of dice with man’s blasphemy

blends;

But howe’er persuasive,

It still proves evasive,

This place where the rainbow ends.

Compiling articles about people of everyday character, Paul Laurence Dunbar earned his place by overcoming hardship to find success throughout his life.

He sought the elusive place where the rainbow ends. Over a hundred years later, we still struggle to find that place.

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was born in Dayton, Ohio to Joshua Dunbar and Matilda Murphy Dunbar. Both slaves prior to the Civil War, many of Dunbar’s parent’s experiences of slave and plantation life influenced his later writings. Joshua Dunbar escaped and served in both the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment before coming to Dayton.

Matilda recognized her son’s aptitude and desire. She worked to ensure he received the best education possible. He was the only African American in his class at Central High School and became class president and class poet. By 1889, two years before he graduated, he had already published poems in the Dayton Herald and worked as editor of the short-lived Dayton Tattler, a Black newspaper published by classmate Orville Wright, who later gained fame with brother Wilbur Wright as inventors of the airplane.

Dunbar aspired to a career in law, but his mother’s financial situation precluded his university education. He consequently sought employment with various Dayton businesses, including newspapers, only to be rejected because of his race. He finally settled for work as an elevator operator, a job that allowed him time to continue writing. At this time Dunbar produced articles, short stories, and poems, including several in the dialect style that later earned him fame.

At 24, Dunbar made the acquaintance of Alice Ruth Moore after her writing and photo in a literary magazine captured his attention. After corresponding for two years, she ended up moving to Washington, DC to join him and they married in 1898.

Two years after their marriage, Dunbar was stricken by Tuberculosis.

Dunbar became the first African-American poet to earn national distinction and acceptance. The New York Times called him “a true singer of the people – white or black.”[1] Frederick Douglass once referred to Dunbar as, “one of the sweetest songsters his race has produced and a man of whom [he hoped] great things.”[2]

The two years Dunbar lived in Washington proved fruitful in the public arena, but during that time his health suffered. Ill with pneumonia, the already tubercular Dunbar was advised to rest in the mountains. He moved to the Catskills in New York State and continued to write while recovering. Seeking further relief, he relocated to Colorado for a short time before returning to Washington, DC.

He continued to write and publish, focusing his work on Black life both before and after slavery; stories that blended a spectrum of humor, sentiment, abuse, and injustice.

In the same way, Dunbar’s life was a complex blend of those elements.

He struggled with declining health and came to rely on alcohol to temper his chronic coughing. While he sought relief, the alcohol only exacerbated his illness, and its cumulative effects contributed to his already faltering personal relationships.

Paul and Alice separated in 1902 but were never divorced.

Alexander, E. (2001).

 

By the winter of 1905 he was fatally ill and he died on February 9, 1906, at age thirty-three.

History and observing people around us can teach about choices. Human desires and convictions, as varied as they are, unify us because they demonstrate our shared ability to reason. It’s this human quality of choice that makes humans capable of great inventions and heroics and capable of terrible deeds.

Dunbar was able to see objectively the humor, superstitions, and short-comings; of his culture. He saw its heart-wounds, its yearnings, its aspirations, and voiced them all on a written page.

I’m inspired by this unity of the human condition, sometimes painfully flawed, and sometimes breathtakingly hallowed. Our vastly different perspectives, expectations, and hopes have the power to unite cultures.

While Dunbar’s life ended too early, his legacy lives on through his writing about a culture and its hardships.

According to Poetry Foundation: “Dunbar’s dialect poems were prized as supreme achievements in African American literature. In the ensuing decades, however, his reputation was damaged by scholars questioning the validity of his often stereotypic characterizations and his apparent unwillingness to sustain an anti-racist stance. More recently Dunbar’s stature has increased markedly. He is once again regarded as America’s first great Black poet, and his standard English poems are now prized as some of his greatest achievements in verse.”

His work constitutes both a history and a celebration of Black life.

The important realization often covered in my blog, everyday people of character, is that a life may be full of hardship, providing obstacles that seem infinite. Even in those circumstances, a person may be inspirational, providing beauty, insight, and inspiration, but ultimately each person is responsible and accountable for their choices and our part in the society we have created.

Individuals and biographers take snippets of history, often preserving only part of the story. The same is true of life through the days that go by. So much in life is subject to individual experience and easy to lose in translation. The path toward greatness is shadowed by uncertainty and self-doubt. Journeys become exceptional because of the choices made along the way.

Resources:

[1] Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, University of Illinois Press, 1973.

[2]  Charles W. Carey, Jr. “Dunbar, Paul Laurence”, American National Biography Online.

[3] Highleyman, Liz (March 13, 2008), Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Lavender Media, Inc., retrieved May 5, 2013

[4] Paul Laurence Dunbar Wikipedia Page

[5] Paul Laurence Dunbar Biography

[6] Paul Laurence Dunbar Poets.org

[7] Paul Laurence Dunbar Britannica

Alexander, E. (2001). Lyrics of sunshine and shadow : the tragic courtship and marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore : a history of love and violence among the African American elite. New York: New York University Press.

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