June 16, 2012

Dunbar graduates: The wind is fair

The graduation ceremony for Central High School in Dayton, Ohio was held in the Dayton Opera House on June 16, 1891. Included in the day's exercises was the singing of the class song, which happened to be written by the sole black student among the 43 graduates. His name was Paul Laurence Dunbar. Among the words were:

The wind is fair, the sails are spread,
Let hearts be firm, "God Speed" is said;
Before us lies the untried way,
And we're impatient at the stay.

Dunbar's lyrics, written to a tune composed by a teacher was well received. Fellow graduates boasted that it was the school's greatest class song. Dunbar himself had reason to be proud: his high school career included ranking roles in the school debate team and editorship of the student newspaper. By then, he was also a published poet. Yet, he "the untried way" before the new graduate would prove difficult. His father had died only a few years earlier, and his struggle to earn a living for himself and his mother led him to take several odd jobs.

Before the end of the century, however, he would be recognized as one of the most celebrated African American authors. His life was never easy, nonetheless, and he died fifteen years after his high school graduation.

*Recommended: The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited with an introduction by Joanne M. Braxton.

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