February 9, 2010

Death of Paul Laurence Dunbar

At the age of 33, Paul Laurence Dunbar died on February 9, 1906. He was born the son of a former slave and an escaped slave in Kentucky. His father had served for the Union Army in the Civil War as a member of the Massachusetts 55th Infantry Regiment. His mother loved poetry and music and encouraged her children to read.

Dunbar's earliest poem was written when he was six years old. The only African-American in his high school, he rose to leadership roles in the debate team, the school newspaper, and the literary society. He took whatever employment he could, including a job as an elevator operator, but always pursued writing. His first book of poems, Oak and Ivy, was published in 1892. Though the book made little impact nationally, Frederick Douglass called Dunbar "the most promising young colored man in America."

After moving to Toledo, Ohio, Dunbar finally got some acclaim from his second book, Majors and Minors, published in 1895. William Dean Howells wrote the introduction to his third collection. Dunbar was invited to England to recite his poetry, he got married, he found a job at the Library of Congress. There, he showed his first signs of tuberculosis. He and his wife soon split, and he went to visit a half-brother in Chicago. It was there that he died at the age of 33. Still, he outlived another promising young writer of the 19th century by two years who shares his death anniversary, several decades earlier. More on him later today.

Death Song

  Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass,
  Whah de branch'll go a-singin' as it pass.
  An' w'en I's a-layin' low,
  I kin hyeah it as it go
Singin', "Sleep, my honey, tek yo' res' at last'."

  Lay me nigh to whah hit meks a little pool,
  An' de watah stan's so quiet lak an' cool,
  Whah de little birds in spring,
  Ust to come an' drink an' sing,
An' de chillen waded on dey way to school.

  Let me settle w'en my shouldahs draps dey load
  Nigh enough to hyeah de noises in de road;
  Fu' I t'ink de las' long res'
  Gwine to sooth my sperrit best'
Ef I's layin' 'mong de t'ings I's allus knowed.

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