In which I mark a poet whose work has occupied my mind
Allow me a moment out of my other endeavors to devote to a topic of true import.
A few months or lifetimes ago, as social institutions and governments responded to the pandemic by mandating masks in public, it didn’t take long for a poem called “We Wear the Mask” to surface in the recesses of my mind. Of course it had nothing to do with contagious disease prevention; I knew it came from the pen of a Black writer (whose name escaped me) and dealt with the Black experience in America.
Luckily, I recovered his pertinent details just in time to commemorate his birthday. Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first African American poets to achieve widespread prominence—and one of the most prominent still—was born on this date in 1872 to formerly enslaved parents. He grew up between Kentucky and Ohio and went to high school in Dayton, where he was voted class president and class poet. (Class poet! Oh, how little we value wordsmithing anymore!)
Though he struggled to find meaningful work due to entrenched discriminatory systems—he finally became an elevator operator, which I for one find pretty dapper—he dedicated himself to writing on the side and soon had published enough poems in various publications to win some wealthy and well-connected admirers. The subsequent course of his literary career spanned multiple collections of poetry, several short stories, three novels, and the libretto of an operetta, “Dream Lovers” (with the musician Samuel Coleridge-Taylor—what a name). He also took a six-month reading tour of England when he was twenty-five (goals).
Tuberculosis afflicted him on and off for much of his life; he died from additional complications of pneumonia in 1906, aged thirty-three and internationally renowned. While much of his work received critical acclaim, he was known chiefly as the premier Black voice of American poetry, and it’s easy to see why.
“We Wear the Mask” spoke to me in the early throes of a large-scale viral threat. Since the breakout of protests across my home country, it’s only spoken louder. By now it might as well be shouting itself hoarse. And while no life should have to be exceptional to matter, this one merits a spotlight today: for its keen chronicling of the daily condition of a recently freed people; for its unflinching observation of a nation which hadn’t (and still hasn’t) sorted out what that freedom really meant; for its crystalline testimony to the power of poetry.
Thank you for your gift, Mr. Dunbar. May we all absorb a fraction of your sympathy.
Image: from the Library of America