Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the most important poets of his era. The Ohio native was born on June 27th, 1872 to freed slave parents from Kentucky.
At a young age, Dunbar took to reading and writing, penning his first poem at six years old and continuing the craft under the guidance of his mother who hoped he would become an A.M.E. minister. As the lone Black student at his Dayton high school, Dunbar was praised for his academic ability. He began to take writing seriously at 16, publishing works in local Dayton newspapers.
In 1893, Dunbar released his first poetry collection, Oak and Ivy, and he went on to publish 11 (or 12 depending on sources) volumes of work in all. Dunbar became internationally known for his use of Negro dialect although he wrote in standard English verse and other dialects as well. Dunbar had his fair share of supporters and critics who flip-flopped between praising and shunning his works. But literary icons and activists W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass were all supportive of his career.
Along with his distinction as the first Black American poet to gain international prominence, Dunbar also penned lyrics for the song for the first all-Black Broadway production, “In Dahomey.”
Dunbar married poet and teacher Alice Dunbar Nelson in 1898, but fell ill with tuberculosis in 1900, The couple eventually separated. Tuberculosis was incurable at the time and the prescribed treatment was to drink alcohol. Dunbar developed a dependence on drinking, contributing to his declining health.
He passed at the age of 33 in 1906.
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