Monday, October 28, 2019

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872—1906) was one of the earliest black poets to gain wide attention in the United States. He couldn’t afford to go to college, and so took a job as an elevator operator in Dayton, Ohio. His first book Oak and Ivy (1893) was self-published, and he paid for it by selling copies to elevator riders for $1.

He soon moved to Chicago, where he was befriended by Frederick Douglass, who called him — “the most promising young colored man in America.”

His second book Majors and Minors (1895, Hadley & Hadley) appeared as his poems were receiving publication, in The New York Times and other major newspapers and magazines. A number of the poems in these collections were written in dialect, and were, at the time, the poems that drew attention to him.

His third book, was published by Dodd, Mead, & Company — and led to a six-month reading tour of England in 1897 — a company he subsequently published his poetry and fiction through.

He died from Tuberculosis when he was just 33.

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.

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!

Entry written by D.S. Martin. His latest poetry collection is Ampersand (2018, Cascade). His books are available through Amazon, and Wipf & Stock, including the anthologies The Turning Aside, and Adam, Eve, & the Riders of the Apocalypse.