THE POET LAUREATE OF THE NEGRO RACE
(by) W. S. Scarborough, LL. D.
William Dean Howells, Edmund Clarence Stedman, Eugene Field, James Whitcomb Riley, James Lane Allen and Robert Ingersoll were the jury which named Paul Laurence Dunbar poet laureate of the Negro race. Dr. Davis W. Clark, of Boston, in speaking of our poet, says: "But, when all is said, his true distinction lies in the fact that he interpreted the particular to the universal, the Negro to the whole human race. He demonstrated, too, by his own genius that the Negro also belongs to the divine family on earth, in spite of all prejudiced denial. He easily molded the white man's language into the modes of thought of the black man and vice versa; thus showing that they are inter-changeable. So the community of genius is illustrated and proven. The accident of his seniority as the poet of his race would alone insure him a permanent place.
He is the first among ten million. Again, he did not inherit, he originated. His race had nothing to transmit in the way of literary or poetic instinct or training. That this young Negro should take up what has heretofore been the white man's own distinctive art, and excel and surpass in it, is the marvel of the hour. The Caucasian’s wealth of literary inheritance and training of several millenniums seemed to give him no advantage over the meagerly furnished and heavily handicapped son of Ham. Right worthily, then, is Paul Laurence Dunbar "laurel-decked."** Thus does Dr. Clark emphasize the appropriateness of the verdict of these eminent men.
(**An extract from the address delivered by Dr. D. W. Clark, of Boston, at the unveiling of the poet’s monument in Dayton’s most beautiful cemetery and on the most beautiful knoll in that cemetery. The other orator was the writer of this appreciation of the poet.)
The Unveiling of the Poet's Monument
It was June 26, 1909, that the white citizens of Dayton, Ohio, paid a tribute to the memory of the dead poet by unveiling a monument in his honor erected by popular subscription and locating it in harmony with the poet's expressed wish under a willow, near a pool of water and not beyond the noises of the road. (See "Death's Song.")
It was a beautiful sight, more than a thousand of Dayton's best citizens had gathered at his tomb that beautiful morning in June, seemingly vying with one another in paying respect to the memory of one of their most distinguished dead—Paul Laurence Dunbar. James Whitcomb Riley was there. It was he who whispered his condolence in the ear of the poet's mother over the long distance telephone, "not trusting his pen or waiting for the mail." Others eminent in poetry and prose and national in reputation were present to do honor to his memory. The Philharmonic Society—seventy in number—composed of Dayton's best white musicians, men and women, sang as hymns the poet's words set to music. It was indeed a gathering for an unusual purpose. It was not that a memorial to a great citizen was an extraordinary occurrence, for this is almost a daily happening. But it was a remarkable thing that such a gathering should be in memory of a man not only of humble birth, but one of the darker race - one with a sable skin, the badge of servitude and oppression that has been the Negro's lot for so many years. But on that day race and color were lost sight of and the Gem City of Ohio was proud to honor its distinguished son who had helped to give it fame—to honor him because of his worth, his genius, his work.
The old adage that a prophet is not without honor save in his own country is another instance of the falsity of so many popular sayings; for in that beautiful city where Paul Laurence Dunbar was reared, where he made his home and gathered to himself friends - here he was most highly honored; and in that memorial to him they not only did honor to an individual man of color who had lived and wrought so well as to deserve recognition by his fellows, but they did honor to an entire race, and to mankind regardless of race.
As I considered that splendid tribute to the Negro poet, as I dwelt upon the meaning of such an expression of appreciation of his greatness, my heart swelled with pride and gratitude that in this day and generation such a thing is possible. And I was more and more convinced that, after all, the possibilities of any race are to be finally determined by the heights reached by its men of intellect, of brain, of genius—men of power who are able to touch the hearts and stir the pulses of the world by their marvelous ability for delineation by pen, brush or chisel—men who rise in the realm of the fine arts and command the world to listen, to gaze, to admire, to respect, to praise their efforts. That tribute to Dunbar by his white fellow citizens showed that after all genius is not a matter of race, color or condition, and that it will win its way forward and upward. The men and women who possess it are the ones who will raise a people to higher planes. These are the ones who will give this same people a place among the nations of the earth. These are the ones that we especially praise and honor.
But, the Negro race has had such men scattered throughout its history—men of color who have distinguished themselves. We do not need to go back to the centuries when Bagay or Cugoano or Vassa lived for such material to declare the Negro's ability. The last century has given the world a proud list from which we may draw examples of Negro greatness in the higher walks of life.
I recall with pleasure the sight of a bronze figure in the Place Malesherbes of Paris which was the work of the great artist and sculptor Dore. It is that of Alexander Dumas pere, France's great Negro historical romancer, who has enchanted the world with his story-telling genius.
Dumas, the father, and Dumas, the son, both have carved a niche for the race where their names are imperishably written, and France is proud to honor them. Twenty-three years ago Russia did honor to another Negro as we did honor Dunbar five years ago. Then the statue of Alexander Pushkin, acknowledged as Russia's greatest poet, was unveiled in Moscow to an admiring people who celebrated thus the literary achievements of the Negro "poet of the Caucasus." Pushkin's name is immortal in Russian hearts.
Down the list we may come to touch Phyllis Wheatley, whose powers drew a tribute from George Washington; to Banneker, who astounded the world with his scientific astronomical calculations— down to the present where the names cluster more thickly, because of honors won; Edmonia Lewis, who from Rome made her fame as a sculptress and Henry Tanner, whose fame as an artist has reached the coveted recognition of the French Government. These, with Douglass and Washington and Du Bois, and a host of others, have proved to the world that the "Souls of Black Folk" differ not from other souls in high impulses, aspirations, and even genius.
Russia and France are proud of their sable writers, each of whom stamped his own personality upon the literature of his nation, and why should not America possess the same pride?
When we come down to modern times and review the field as it is stretched out before us, there is no literary character that stands higher than Paul Laurence Dunbar. We speak of Longfellow and Whittier and Bryant and Lowell, and other great American poets, and speak of them with rightful pride; but to my mind not one of them was a sweeter singer than Paul Laurence Dunbar. He sang with equal freedom and boldness, he sang with equal musical rhythm, he sang with their grace and beauty, and he sang of the desires, the struggles, the ambitions, the aspirations of a people that seemed to have no future. In his song he has helped pave the way for a future-for his race. He has hewn out a path, has trodden the ground for others to follow, and what was possible in his case is possible for others.
The very fact that he made his way to the front from humble origin and against tremendous odds shows the power of a soul.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was no prodigy, no bundle of eccentricities, no Blind Tom whose powers in one direction were miraculous and balanced by the dwarfing of all else in his nature and character. He was a normal man in every respect and as such is to be judged as every other man of letters.
In all nations it is an accepted fact that the literature of a people is influenced by four things. The race of the writer is to be taken in consideration as well as the epoch in which he lives and the immediate environment about him. We do not except from this rule - the one whose name we honored at the unveiling of the monument erected by popular subscription by his friends of the white race. Paul Laurence Dunbar was of African ancestry. It could not be claimed that a large percentage of his ability was due to the amount of Caucasian blood in his veins. He represented the Negro in America in letters as few others who have reached eminence could do. I would emphasize that his gift of song was pre-eminently racial. He had the happy gaiety and the weird imagination of his race. He sang from his heart as the race has sung ever since it was brought to these shores. It is shown in his dialect poems where the same wonderful combination of Aesopian wisdom and imaginative humor that have made Harris' African stories so famous is evidenced at every turn.
He felt for his race, and as his race he sang with the heart and tongue of his people. It was not all joy. Sorrow and sadness crept in. The changeful moods were his, and so his poems met the moods of mankind and won a place in hearts, which must be done to win a way to fame. He was a child of nature. The wind dared him to song: the spring warmed in his veins when the
"Grass commence a-comin'
Throo de thawin' groun'."
And summer lured him with the
"Pines a-smellin' in de wood."
Like all other writers, he was also influenced by his environment, which here was closely allied to racial influence and had a strong sway over his works, imbuing them with the touch and personality that have made their peculiar charm.
Every phase of Negro life has been caught by his pen as by a camera. The simplest and homeliest life about him threw upon his brain indelible pictures that he transformed to liquid notes of song, sparkling with grace and vivid imagination. The life of the fireside, the field, the cabin, the wood, the stream—all gave him happy themes for his gift to play upon. The peculiar traits of his people, their quaint characteristics, their propensities and inclinations all received a loving, tender tribute at his hand as he wove them into immortal verse.
The third influence—the epoch—shows comparatively little influence over his works. Here and there we find him centralizing thought upon the spirit of the times about him. It was an age of peace in Dunbar's years, so his muse was not stirred to clarion tones, but when the blind rage of mob violence pursued his people, his "Talking Oak" showed how his heart was stirred; and when Frederick Douglass died he mourned in an elegy that showed the true poetic fire ablaze from the friction of life about him, but his prose has shown this influence of the world ideas about him far more than his poetry, for Dunbar's literary fertility was not confined to the poetic field alone.
Largely influenced by race and environment in his writings, yet one other influence that has always been the mightiest in the literature of any people was also his. This was Genius. We cannot account for genius in any people. It springs up and no one can trace it. It comes more often from the lowliest surroundings. The soul that comes from Nature's God, that lives close to Nature, that sees life clearly, that knows other souls by mysterious affinity—that soul is born and carries its possessor into the upper realms where but few can follow, and we call it genius.
Paul Laurence Dunbar had genius. Only a genius could have sung as he has sung, only a genius could have triumphed as he has triumphed, only a genius could have made a permanent place in American literature for himself as he has done. His death was untimely. His career was not completed. What might he not have done had more years been given him? But God—who took him— knew best. And here we may repeat that whatever definition we may give genius, the fact is that no man possessing such as Dunbar possessed can ever be kept down. Genius forces its way upward. It demands recognition. Dunbar's native powers forced the world to give him place and to sing his praises. I remember in Europe when, on a special occasion, his name was mentioned before an audience, that the people vied in enthusiastic applause for the black boy who had sung himself into prominence by the greatness of his intellectual powers. If this side of Negro life—the literary side—could be dwelt upon more, if the career made by one like Paul Laurence Dunbar could be held up more before the world, if the intellectual progress of the Negro could be taken up for consideration to a greater extent, and if the distance that he has come from the days of slavery to the present could form the subject of more speeches and orations, I feel very sure that the people of America would be willing to grant the black man a hearing and a more favorable consideration in the matters that make for the highest good of the race.
If the literature of Dunbar is taken upon its merits, we feel that both the prose and poetry of others of the race will be likewise favorably regarded, and in that sense the Negro people will be benefited. The lives of such men as Dunbar, Tanner and Du Bois, who have with others made a future for the people along higher lines, should inspire us all. There are many of the race here and there in nearly every city, building slowly but surely in literature and art and are making a way for those who are to follow.
Greatness does not come to every man even though he may work for it, hut there are some who by their own power of mind and personality tower above the common people, thereby showing that greatness is limited to no one people and to no one class of people. Mr. Dunbar was one of this class. His life, as has been said, was a brilliant one in a literary sense. He was a prolific writer as well. Thu large number of volumes emanating from his pen and the great interest manifested by the public at large in his works clearly prove that his powers were fed from a perennial spring.
Their freshness and virility both astonished and pleased the waiting public, which continually called, like Oliver Twist, for more, and continually gave a spontaneous meed of praise for every new effort.
He died in the harness, so to speak, with a volume incomplete. Why the Creator saw fit to remove him from the scene of his earthly labors at his early age man cannot tell. We feel the loss as a race of a brilliant man and helper of his people. He has dropped his mantle. Upon whose shoulders it will fall, time alone can tell, but it is due his fame to say that we would eagerly applaud the singer of color who may prove worthy to wear it. We have lamented the loss of such men as Douglass and Crumwell and Payne, men on whom the years bore heavily, but Dunbar was young, in his prime, and greater things were to be achieved. We needed him, as we need all strong literary characters, to help a people to a standing place in the world of letters. Yet his life, his work—this memorial— all must ever be an inspiration to every Negro youth to set his feet in the paths for higher things, to be determined to win spurs in some great ambitious effort to compel the recognition of the world for some great achievement.
Every person of color should feel under lasting gratitude to our honored poet for the position he. won for his people; and the race must never fail to show that gratitude, not only for this fact, but for every phase of recognition accorded him by other races.
I say his life, with its crown of laurel, should be an inspiration to the Negro people, and I also say that it should be a lesson for the critics of the race. To those who do well, the recognition befitting their merits should be given. As his mother had reason to be proud of such a son, so the City of Dayton had reason to be proud of such a citizen, and this great State of Ohio should feel itself also honored by such a career of such an illustrious citizen.
I considered it an honor that I was able on that occasion to stand over his monument and in the name of the Negro people, and, in the name of humanity, thank all those of that great city who had joined to raise such a memorial to the honor of this sweet American bard to thank them all regardless of race or color, who had risen to such heights in honoring this poet of sable hue, to congratulate all that race, color or creed was not allowed to dampen ardor or be an obstacle in honoring their fellow-townsman. Ohio was honored by that tribute. America was honored by it, and that day should ever be a proud one in the annals of that city and its people. There Dunbar spent his youth; there he developed his talent; there he laid down his work, and while we add a laurel leaf to the chaplet which fame placed upon his living brow, we declare that
"The great work laid upon his short years
Is done, and well done."
Such lives are blessings in the world at large. God lends them to the world to show that mind knows no race—that we are all brothers, differing from one another only as gifts and graces differ—that the Creator is our common Father through whose gracious kindness such lives spring up, blossom and bear fruit to prove the immortality of the soul.
Dunbar will never die, even though his body lies buried in the earth. His soul of song will continue to re-echo in the hearts of men, and the brightness and beauty, the humor and pathos, the tenderness and sympathy with which he has enriched the world will rest like a benediction upon us all for all time to come. Yes, Dunbar still lives in his songs and in our hearts—the same earnest, sincere, gentle, genial soul that we knew so well in his earthly years. His gentle spirit today hovers over the home he loved so well, and the city dear to his heart, and though he has gone to take his rest, that spirit will be a guardian angel, blessing all for the greatness of heart and soul that has evoked that tribute from a grateful, appreciative people.
His wish was fulfilled. He sleeps among his fellow-citizens, as he begged in his touching "Death Song."
"Let me settle w'en my shouldahs draps dey load
High enough to hyeah de noises in de road;
Fu' I t'ink de las' long res'
Gwine to soothe my sperrit bes'
Ef I's layin' 'mong de t'ings I's allus knowed.
Born, Dayton, Ohio, June 27, 1872. Died, Dayton, Ohio, February 9, 1906. Mother, emancipated slave. Father, slave, escaped from Kentucky to Canada via underground railway. Educated Dayton common schools. Graduated, Steele High School, Dayton, 1891. Wrote class poem. Editor-in-chief High School Times, 1891. President Philomathean Society, 1891. Only colored man ever elected to above two positions. Clerk in Haytian Building, World's Fair, Chicago, 1893. Tendered a reception by the staff of the Century Magazine, New York, Richard Watson Gilder presiding, 1896. Tour of England reading and reciting, 1896, eight months. Guest of the Hon. John Hay, Henry M. Stanley, the Savage Club, the Royal Geographical Society, etc., London 1897. Employments while in school, and early part of literary career, elevator boy, court page, and position in Congressional Library, Washington, D. C. Married Alice Moore, New York City, 1898. Miss Moore is school teacher, short-story, magazine writer, and author of two volumes: "Violets and Other Tales," and "The Goodness of Saint Roque." His last dialect poem was entitled, "Sling Along." Among his last poems was one entitled, "Equipment." Four stanzas refer to himself. His last poem, one stanza, was addressed to his friend. Dr. Burns, who was also his physician and who died three months before Dunbar. These as yet unpublished.
1893. "Oak and Ivy" (Poems). United Brethren Publishing Company. Out of print. Single copies now sell at $4.
1895. "Majors and Minors" (Poems). Hadley & Hadley, Toledo, Ohio.
1896. "Lyrics of Lowly Life" (Poems). Dodd, Mead & Co. "Lil Gal" (Poems). Dodd, Mead & Co. "The Heart of Happy Hollow" (Prose). Dodd, Mead & Co.
1898. "Folks from Dixie" (Prose). Dodd, Mead & Co. "The Uncalled" (Prose). Dodd, Mead & Co.
1899. "Lyrics of the Hearthside" (Poems). Dodd, Mead & Co. "Poems of Cabin and Field" (Poems). Dodd, Mead & Co.
1900. "The Strength of Gideon" (Prose). Dodd, Mead & Co. "The Love of Landry" (Prose). Dodd, Mead & Co.
1901. "Candle-Lightin' Time" (Poems). Dodd, Mead & Co. "The Fanatics" (Prose). Dodd, Mead & Co.
1902. "The Sport of the Gods" (Prose). Dodd, Mead & Co. "The Jest of Fate" (The same book under different title. Prose). Jarrold & Sons, London.
1903. "Lyrics of Love and Laughter" (Poems). Dodd, Mead & Co. "In Old Plantation Days" (Prose). Dodd, Mead & Co. "When Malindy Sings" (Poems). Dodd, Mead & Co.
1905. "Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow" (Poems). Dodd, Mead & Co. "Howdy, Honey, Howdy" (Poems). Dodd, Mead & Co.
Two books were written and the publication anticipated before Dunbar's death. One book poetry, illustrated, and one prose, novel.
1906. "Life and Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar" (Poems and Biography). By Lida Kect Wiggins. J. L. Nichols & Co., Naperville, III.
1906. "Joggin' Erlon' " (Poems). J. L. Nichols & Co., Naperville, Ill.
1908. "Lyrics of Lowly Life." Illustrated (Poems). J. L. Nichols & Co., Naperville, Ill.
Wilberforce University, Wilberforce, Ohio.
Return to "Paul Laurence Dunbar - Poet Laureate" Home Page