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Paul Laurence Dunbar - Poet Laureate of the Negro Race
Paul Laurence Dunbar



(by) Reverdy C. Ransom


Paul Laurence Dunbar was a product of the first generation of freedom. Whatever of talent, endowment or genius he possessed belonged to the rich, warm blood of his African inheritance. We know that capacity, genius, ability, are not limited by race or blood; but so universal is the imputation of racial inferiority to the African and his descendants that the achievements of each gifted son or daughter reflect glory upon the entire race. The Negro has contributed very little to what we know as human progress in the terms of modern civilization. This fact is used against him and is made to justify his unequal and degrading treatment. It is only by multiplying examples of the highest achievement that the universal judgment may be reversed. In the United States, Dunbar and Henry 0. Tanner are "the sea mark of our farthest sail" in letters and in art. These are not freaks or prodigies, but prophecies of the latent powers of the race, the first unfoldings of which have not yet but fairly begun. Like the midnight sun of the North Polar regions, the dark-ness that has enveloped the African and his descendants has been briefly illuminated here and there through the centuries by some bright Negro intellect in almost every quarter of the earth. However widely the many varieties of the human race may differ in certain physical characteristics, they have a common origin and are of one and the same family. The Creator has not made one branch of the human family inferior to another. History does, however, abundantly prove that the groups into which the human family is divided differ in race traits, characteristics and in wealth of endowment in certain specific directions. The world is indebted to the Jews for keeping alive and transmitting across the centuries a pure monotheism. The Greeks realized the highest ideal of beauty to which mankind has yet attained; while the white races of Europe and America have displayed a genius for colonization, commerce and invention applied to the development of the physical resources of the earth. So large and comprehensive have been the contributions to knowledge that it is felt by many that there is little left of a distinctive character for the black peoples to do. But in the spiritual realm, in the emotions, in music, in kindness, in cheerfulness and the spirit of brotherhood, the Negro has a wealth of endowment, which, when his hour comes, will put a living soul into the activities of human life which may well be the glory and the crown of that world-wide civilization which makes for peace, for brotherhood and love.

Dunbar was an interpreter of the life and spirit of his people. Fresh as a breath from the hills, his poems breathe with the atmosphere which surrounds the life of his race. Dunbar's voice is the first note of the bird that sounds the approach of dawn. He fell asleep before his eyes beheld the day which he had ushered in. But the harp whose strings were touched by him with such poetic grace will not remain forever silent., Other hearts that have been warmed by the equatorial' sun will be filled with new and higher inspirations; other hands, black tinseled by the subtle alchemy of the tropics, will lift the veil from off the ability and power of his people, that all the world may feast its hollow metallic senses in the banqueting house of mind .and spirit where the heart presides.

Dunbar was always a child—a child at play—who passed from us before he came to the full maturity of his powers. From the days of his boyhood, intimately and well we knew him, when he was yet unknown beyond a narrow circle in the busy little city where he held a position of the humblest sort. We have ridden with him many times in the car of his elevator, where, scattered about him on loose sheets of paper, were some of the first of his imperishable lines which were to win the admiration of the world. When his first book, "Oak and Ivy," came from the press, we introduced him to our congregation and assisted him in disposing of copies he had borrowed from the printer to pay the cost of publication. More than once have we dined with him, with chitterlings and hot corn pone as the piece de resistance. He has come to us in the late hours of the night, when the muses were singing at the windows of his soul, in search of a word that might better convey the delicate shades of thought or feeling they brought before his vision. The late John Bigelow said of a visit to Alexander Dumas, that Dumas showed him a story he had just completed, and in reply to a question, remarked that he never rewrote his manuscripts, but let the first draft stand. This, Bigelow gratuitously remarks, was "characteristic of his race." This was not true of Dunbar, who was three-fourths more Negro than Dumas. When the song had spent itself, he carefully corrected and revised. May we not add that this was "characteristic of his race"? Dunbar was the spoiled child of the agreeable men and winsome women of every city where he went. He was not retiring or exclusive; where beauty, pleasure and music met, he mad0 a feast. He was his own best interpreter of his works. To hear Dunbar read from Dunbar's works, with his deep rich baritone voice, with every action suited to the word, was to see him at his best and to hold forever afterward a pleasant memory that cannot fade.

A spirit so highly strung and sensitive as his was not without its tragedies. He has come to our study wearing a look of almost hopeless dejection and begged us to come upon our knees alone with him, in the presence of the Alone, to pray for strength and heaven's gracious favor. We have it told elsewhere how he wrought and what, up to now, is the world's estimate of his genius, and we have here, too, an intimate sketch from one who for the first time breaks her silence to speak of him who first won her hand and linked her name forever with his fame.

Phyllis Wheatley and Dunbar, each of the pure African type, were the first to enter the enchanted ground of poesy and song. Up there among "the choir invisible," with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with Burns and Keats, with Shelley and with Poe, may they not await with confidence the day when the gifted children of their people will hold the wrapped attention of the world, while they flood it with their ravishing strains of music and of song?


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