Dunbar’s Double Voice

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio, 140 years ago today. Despite racial and economic obstacles, and despite his short lifespan — he died of tuberculosis (compounded by alcoholism) at age thirty-three — Dunbar published some two dozen books: short stories, novels, plays, librettos, and songs, as well as the poetry he is most famous for. At the turn of the century, this output elevated Dunbar to “poet laureate of the negro race,” credited by some as one of the very first black Americans to gain an international, biracial readership.

There is debate about how many of those readers appreciated his full accomplishment or even allowed him his true voice. Dunbar wrote in two distinctive and somewhat incompatible styles. Much of his “plantation writing,” describing the sort of life his parents knew as Kentucky slaves, is in dialect — below, the first stanza of “Death Song,” now inscribed on Dunbar’s gravestone:

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’.”

At the same time, and often in the same collection of poems, Dunbar wrote in a more literary style, and often with a harder edge. Below, the first two stanzas of perhaps his most famous poem, “We Wear the Mask”:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, —
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties,

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.

Dunbar welcomed the fame that the dialect poems won him, but he was suspicious of the Uncle Tomism that could come with it and tired of the pigeonholing that certainly did: “I am tired, so tired of dialect. I send out graceful little poems, suited for any of the magazines, but they are returned to me by editors who say, ‘We would be very glad to have a dialect poem, Mr. Dunbar, but we do not care for the language composition.’ “

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.