Paul Lawrence Dunbar was the first African-American poet and novelist to achieve national and international fame. He was born in Dayton, Ohio, June 27, 1872, and was the son of former slaves. Dunbar was known for his use of dialect, but was also an accomplished poet and novelist in standard English. At age seventeen he published his own newspaper, the Dayton Tattler, an African-American newspaper printed by his high school classmate and friend, Orville Wright of the Wright Brothers. His first book of poems, Oak and Ivy, was published in 1893. Dunbar published many books of poetry, novels and music during his short life. He died in Dayton on February 6, 1906. He was only 33 years old.
In junior high, I stumbled across the below poem in a collection of poems. It stunned me with its power and pain. I copied it into a notebook, but the author's name got torn off over the years, and I couldn't recall it. I finally found the poem on the Net and then was able to purchase some of his books. What a true, strong voice he had. He died too soon, and the world is the lesser for it.
WE WEAR THE MASK
By Paul Lawrence Dunbar
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
The lines "We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries/ To thee from tortured souls arise" always move me. The sheer anguish and pain the poet expresses is nearly overwhelming. How I wish he had lived longer and gave us more poems.
You can learn more about Dunbar and read and hear several of his poems at the excellent University of Dayton's Paul Lawrence Dunbar site. His work will touch you in ways you won't expect. And maybe not ready for.
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