The brief but shining life of Paul Laurence Dunbar, a poet who gave dignity to the Black experience


Paul Laurence Dunbar; Poet; Black Experience


Paul Laurence Dunbar was only 33 years old when he died in 1906.

In his short yet prolific life, Dunbar used folk dialect to give voice and dignity to the experience of Black Americans at the turn of the 20th century. He was the first Black American to make a living as a writer and was seminal in the start of the New Negro Movement and Harlem Renaissance.

Dunbar also penned one of the most iconic phrases in Black literature – “I know why the caged bird sings” – his poem “Sympathy.”

“… When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, When he beats his bars and he would be free; It is not a carol of joy or glee, But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings – I know why the caged bird sings!”

Published in 1899, “Sympathy” inspired acclaimed Black writer and activist Maya Angelou to use Dunbar’s line as the title of her seminal autobiography.

But Dunbar’s artistic legacy is often overlooked. This, despite the fact that his work influenced a number of other great African American literary giants, including Langston HughesNikki GiovanniJames Weldon JohnsonZora Neale Hurston and Margaret Walker.


Minnita Daniel-Cox

Associate Professor of Music, University of Dayton




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