Poetry Tuesday: Paul Laurence Dunbar


I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I only own three collections of poetry by African-Americans. And they’re rather slim. Compared to the amount of poetry by white men that we own…well, 3 little books is a pathetic representation in light of what is available. I have one Maya Angelou (who doesn’t?), but zero Langston Hughes. The other two are collections. That’s just ridiculous. So, I feel pretty pretentious sharing African-American poetry this month. Roll your eyes at this ignorant white girl, if you want to, but she won’t be a total poser by the time she’s finished. My mission this month is to learn more.

I read African-American Poetry, An Anthology, 1773-1927. It’s a small volume, but it has provided a list of poets for further study this month.

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From the introductory note in Selected Poems: Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited by Glenn Mott:

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was born in Dayton, Ohio, and lived primarily in Northern urban environments his entire life. His parents, former Kentucky slaves, divorced when he was four, and he was raised under the tutelage of his mother. He was educated in Dayton public schools, and although Dunbar was often the only black member of his class, he was elected class president and was the founding editor of his high school newspaper. Refused more suitable employment because of his color, he worked as an elevator operator after graduating. His first book, Oak and Ivy (1893) was published at his own expense. 

His second book, Majors and Minors was published in 1895. His first collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life, was published in 1896.

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Perhaps you’ll recognize this one by Paul Laurence Dunbar:

The Unsung Heroes

A song for the unsung heroes who rose in the country’s need,
When the life of the land was threatened by the slaver’s cruel greed,
For the men who came from the cornfield, who came from the plough and the flail,
Who rallied round when they heard the sound of the mighty man of the rail.

They laid them down in the valleys, they laid them down in the wood,
And the world looked on at the work they did, and whispered, “It is good.”
They fought their way on the hillside, they fought their way in the glen,
And God looked down on their sinews brown, and said, “I have made them men.”

They went to the blue lines gladly, and the blue lines took them in,
And the men who saw their muskets’ fire thought not of their dusky skin.
The gray lines rose and melted beneath their scathing showers,
And they said, “‘T is true, they have force to do, these old slave boys of ours.”

Ah, Wagner saw their glory, and Pillow knew their blood,
That poured on a nation’s altar, a sacrificial flood.
Port Hudson heard their war-cry that smote its smoke-filled air,
And the old free fires of their savage sires again were kindled there.

They laid them down where the rivers the greening valleys gem.
And the song of the thund’rous cannon was their sole requiem,
And the great smoke wreath that mingled its hue with the dusky cloud,
Was the flag that furled o’er a saddened world, and the sheet that made their shroud.

Oh, Mighty God of the Battles Who held them in Thy hand,
Who gave them strength through the whole day’s length, to fight for their native land,
They are lying dead on the hillsides, they are lying dead on the plain
And we have not fire to smite the lyre and sing them one brief strain.

Give, Thou, some seer the power to sing them in their might,
Then men who feared the master’s whip, but did not fear the fight;
That he may tell of their virtues as minstrels did of old,
Till the pride of face and the hate of race grow obsolete and cold.

A song for the unsung heroes who stood the awful test,
When the humblest host that the land could boast went forth to meet the best;
A song for the unsung heroes who fell on the bloody sod,
Who fought their way from night to day and struggled up to God.

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This next one has been a favorite of mine since I first read it in high school:

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 overwise,
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!

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So, tell me, do you have a favorite African-American poet? Who are some modern poets we ought to read?

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One thought on “Poetry Tuesday: Paul Laurence Dunbar

  1. Sounds like you have a lot more poetry in general than I do, but I like James Weldon Johnson. I think my kids would have fun memorizing “The Creation.” Phillis Wheatley is also a poet I’d like to introduce them too – although, they’ve already seen her character on LIberty Kids.

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