Dunbar was born at 311 Howard Street in Dayton, Ohio, on June 27, 1872, the son of former slaves from Kentucky (his father had fought in the Civil War for Massachusetts). In high school, the teenage Dunbar was the only African-American student in his class for four years. He was not intimidated and became an active member of the student body: he was a member of the debating society, editor of the school paper, and president of the literary society. He graduated in 1891.
In 1895, Dunbar published Lyrics of Lowly Life, a collection which juxtaposed traditional English-inspired poetry with a representative black voice, using a dialect and interpreting themes unique to the African-American experience. The result was a unique book which some scholars suggest introduced an important question in black writing about "the absence and the presence of the black voice in the text," according to Prof. Henry Louis Gates. Compare the first stanza in a couple poems from that collection:
"The Poet and His Song"
A song is but a little thing,
And yet what joy it is to sing!
In hours of toil it gives me zest,
And when at eve I long for rest;
When cows come home along the bars,
And in the fold I hear the bell,
As Night, the shepherd, herds his stars,
I sing my song, and all is well.
"An Ante-Bellum Sermon"
We is gathahed hyeah, my brothahs,
In dis howlin' wildaness,
Fu' to speak some words of comfo't
To each othah in distress.
An' we chooses fu' ouah subjic'
Dis — we'll 'splain it by an' by;
"An' de Lawd said, 'Moses, Moses,'
An' de man said, 'Hyeah am I.'"