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!”
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 Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston and Margaret Walker.
Associate Professor of Music, University of Dayton