Naomi Ayala on PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR
(June 27, 1872 - February 9, 1906)
I knew nothing of him at the time. The year was 1978. A recent immigrant from the island of Puerto Rico, I had finally learned enough English to secure a job under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). My assignment was returning books to stacks at the New Haven Public Library, the first public library I remember ever setting foot in. One day, fighting sleep and adolescence's most dreaded enemy, boredom, I closed my eyes and ran my finger over a shelf of books. I intended to land on one which I would open and from which I would randomly choose a page to read in the musty shadows of the stacks before getting caught.
Love me. I care not what the
To me may do.
If, but in spite of time and tears,
You prove but true...
Apotheosis, I read. Love's Apotheosis. "Apotecaria?" Apothecary-like? I was far from the reference section.
and though the winter
snow shall pile,
And leave me chill...
The lines danced in my head to the beat of my heart's flutter, and I sighed only the way an adolescent can, wishing on true love, hoping to be sweet on somebody soon, anyone who could love like that, had a voice that could ring so true. In these lines of Paul Laurence Dunbar, reminiscent to me of the great romantic poet Gustavo Adolfo Becquer I'd read so much on the island in my beginning teens, I felt more at home in that first New England winter that brought the infamous Blizzard of '78 than I ever would again. I would return to that stack repeatedly until, stanza by stanza, I had memorized the entire poem and could pronounce "apotheosis."
Though better known as a poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar was also a writer of short stories, essays and novels. On one occasion his poetry was set to music to form part of a musical and on another he contributed to the creation of a musical himself. He is often credited with being the first nationally acclaimed African American poet. Dunbar rose from great acclaim in his birthplace of Dayton, Ohio to regional and later national acclaim. He was born to two former slaves, who together formed one of the very few Black families in Dayton. While the Dunbars were highly respected, their predominantly white community still held the common stereotypes of Blacks at that time. Dunbar's family believed that Blacks could not only be educated but had great contributions in general to make. As slaves, both his parents had taught themselves to read and write. His parents, and his parents' stories about their years living in bondage, shaped Paul's identity, but, so it seems, did the Dayton community they resided in.
Paul Laurence Dunbar's father left him and his mother when he was unable to secure work to support them. His mother earned a living washing clothes for people in the town. Paul began to write poetry at age six and, by the time he was in high school, was publishing his work regularly and becoming well known locally for his skill at his craft. He was the only Black student at Central High School, where he was elected president of the senior class and served as an editor of the school's newspaper.
Dunbar's is a story of constant inner conflict and a remorseful conscience. He struggled to represent well a Black community he barely knew and to "get a hearing," as one of his biographers Addison Gayle, Jr., would say, with the predominantly white audience who could afford to buy his books. The same audience would later place demands on Paul to write the kind of poetry that least well represented his people. This, his "dialect" poetry, as many of his other works often do, represented Southern stereotypes of slaves (people who loved their masters, were happy in being loyal and subservient to them, childish buffoons who loved to play music and party all day and night). Dunbar got his "hearing" and hoped that, having won great acclaim, he would be able to introduce to his audience the more serious poetry about love, nature and death that occupied his writing time. He was never able to realize this hope.
While much of Dunbar's serious poetry deals with death and dying, one of Dunbar's greatest passions was the natural world. Not only did he crave freedom as a Black man from the bounds of the 19th century, but he also craved personal freedom, the sense of peace solitude brought him--and it seems that in nature both these needs were met. Not surprisingly, Dunbar often wrote about the city as a cruel place, the enemy of man that held all the evils of civilization. But in his more serious poetry he also wrote about the plight of Blacks in a way that contradicted his dialect poetry or, as he called it, his "jingles in a broken tongue." These more serious poems mourned tragic events like the many lynchings that continued to take place, even as he lay dying in Dayton at the turn of the century.
Ironically enough, Dunbar said he never wanted to be known as a Black poet. While he never denied his blackness (and could not since, first, it was obvious, and second, both critics and various supporters made his having "no admixture of white blood" one of the important characteristics by which he should be known), he wanted to be merely known as a "poet." I remember refusing to be called a Puerto Rican feminist poet in my early 20s, wanting to be free to write about anything I pleased without having to endure being made to feel that I was not living up to my "label," or what "my job" as a poet was supposed to be. I faced this constantly. And, yes, it was a question of personal freedom. But I had a privilege Dunbar did not. Dunbar wanted to be known as a "human" first. When one looks at his life that way, it is difficult not to meet it with a great deal of admiration and compassion.
A look at Dunbar's poetry across his brief life, as well as his other works, shows us a man in constant conflict, continuously contradicting himself on the page. While it is well known that he was a man of great sensitivity and conscience, he was not able to publicly denounce myths about Blacks portrayed in 19th century North America. In fact, some of his writing perpetuated these very myths. Dunbar was aware of this contradiction and suffered greatly. In his biography, Addison Gayle, speaking of this pain, quotes the following lines from Dunbar's poem "Conscience and Remorse." To Dunbar, giving in to the demands of his audience to write and publish his dialect poetry, which reinforced the national conception of Blacks held by white audiences, was the point where he let go of his conscience:
"Good-bye," I said to my conscience--
"Good-bye for aye and aye,"
And I put her hands off harshly,
And turned my face away;
And conscience smitten sorely
Returned not from that day.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was first known as an elevator boy and poet. It was at his post at the Callahan Building in Dayton that he met renowned people of the time who would help him push his work, would later sponsor its publication, and lend financial help throughout the many financial hardships of his life.
He turned down an opportunity to attend college and study law so that he could focus entirely on poetry. He fought the color line to seek other work to better provide for himself and his mother Matilda. Policies against the "hiring of Negroes" at the time led Dunbar to move to Chicago in 1893, where he met and worked briefly with Frederick Douglass. In 1897 he toured England, and later that year secured a job as a clerk in the Library of Congress where he held a reading program for children daily. He remained there until December 1898.
It was in 1896, with the publication of Lyrics of a Lowly Life and its review in Harper's Weekly by the most respected critic of the time, William D. Howells, that Dunbar acquired national fame. He was now known far and wide. His home in Washington, at 321 U Street NW, to where he'd brought both his mother Matilda and wife Alice, was the center of the District's African-American life. Dignitaries, politicians, and literary figures traveled to visit him here from all over the country. But, it was here in D.C., during his 15 month tenure at the Library of Congress, that dust from old manuscripts, newspapers and books accumulated in his lungs, turned first into an annoying cough, later into pneumonia, eventually worsening and causing hemorrhages. He lost a great amount of weight and his health became so poor that he had to relocate to a different climate (first to the Catskills and later to Colorado). Soon it was clear that he had tuberculosis. Unable to receive treatment to assuage the acute pain caused by his condition, he self medicated with alcohol, later turning to it to deal with his despondency until he was almost entirely confined to bed back in Dayton, where he later died.
Twenty-five years after I read "Love's Apotheosis" for the first time, I learn that he wrote it for Alice, the love of his life and wife. It is this poem that opens Lyrics of the Hearthside. published in 1899. Dunbar believed that love could protect him from the world. His and Alice's was a fervent love affair between two poets that stood most of the tests of time (sadly, not Dunbar's eventual addiction to alcohol) and made their relationship a partnership that allowed each to share with the other what the other needed most.
LOVE'S APOTHEOSIS by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Love me. I care not what the
To me may do.
If, but in spite of time and tears,
You prove but true.
Love me - albeit grief shall dim
And tears bedew,
I shall not e'en complain, for then
Shall still be blue.
Love me, and though the winter
snow shall pile,
And leave me chill,
Thy passion's warmth shall make
for me, meanwhile,
A sun-kissed hill.
And when the days have length-
ened into years,
And I grow old,
Oh, spite of pains and griefs and
cares and fears,
Grow thou not cold.
Then hand and hand we shall pass
up the hill,
I say not down;
That twain go up, of love, who've
loved their fill, -
To gain love's crown.
Love me, and let my life take up
As sun the dew.
Come, sit, my queen, for in my
heart a throne
Awaits for you!
Dunbar's life reminds me of our indelible responsibility first to ourselves and our conscience, not our audiences. It reminds me of our unequivocal responsibility to speak out and yet be cautious about being pigeon-holed into representing entire communities (that, for me specifically, can mean Latinos, a people comprised of many nations I will not ever be able to represent). His life warns me of the danger of our generation's push to professionalize our craft. Today, while there are more opportunities than ever before to publish, for example, the work of Latino authors in this country, big publishing houses still often "buy" what fits their mold of how Latinos should be depicted nationally, under the guise of what cultural stereotypes sell.
I would not have wanted to be in Dunbar's shoes, to deal with the conflict he dealt with throughout his life. While I agree he perpetuated stereotypes, I cannot judge him nor can I judge how and what he chose to write. First, his legacy to letters is unquestionable. Second, his was a struggle that has been faced by many writers of color of our time. His was a pivotal time in history. He chose to live out his conflict on the page and, in so doing, teaches us. He mourned his inability to "develop" his work further as he'd wanted. After all, he died at 34. At 39, I am barely beginning to perfect my craft and wonder what "jingles" may have sneaked their way into my creative imagination that I must comb my work to find.
Braxton, Joanne M., Ed. The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. (University Press of Virginia, 1993.)
Gayle, Addison, Jr. Oak and Ivy: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar. (Doubleday, 1971.)
The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. (Dodd, Mead & Co., 1913.)
Paul Laurence Dunbar web site, sponsored by the University of Dayton: http://www.plethoreum.org/dunbar/
The Modern American Poetry site: http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/dunbar/dunbar.htm
The Academy of American Poets site: http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?45442B7C000C050409