Paul Laurence Dunbar

African-American Literature

Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872—February 9, 1906) was one of the first African-American poets to gain national recognition. His parents—freed slaves from Kentucky—separated shortly after his birth, but Dunbar used their stories of plantation life as material for his writing throughout his career. Dunbar self-published his first collection of poems, Oak and Ivy, in 1893. Later that year, he moved to Chicago, hoping to find work at the first World’s Fair. Frederick Douglass found him a job as a clerk and also arranged for Dunbar to give a poetry reading. Majors and Minors (1895), his second collection, was so titled because it consisted of poems written in standard American English (“majors”) and poems written in dialect (“minors”). His verses in dialect proved much more popular and noted critic William Dean Howells gave the collection a favorable review in Harper’s Weekly. This recognition helped gain Dunbar national and international acclaim, and in 1897 he made a six-month reading tour of England. In 1896, Dunbar published Lyrics of Lowly Life, and received a clerkship at the Library of Congress. While living in Washington, he published a short story collection, Folks from Dixie; a novel, The Uncalled, and two more collections of poems: Lyrics of the Hearthside and Poems of Cabin and Fields. He also contributed lyrics to several musical reviews. In 1898, Dunbar was diagnosed with tuberculosis, but continued to write poems. His collections included Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903), Howdy, Howdy, Howdy (1905) and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905), books that confirmed his position as America’s premier black poet before his death at the age of 33.


We Wear the Mask


The Debt


Ships that Pass in the Night