Types of Dunbar’s Poetry

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born into a family of former slaves. He is considered the first African-American writer in the United States to be widely known. His poems written in dialect, a folk speech of the American South, were most popular. They reflect all the ambivalence, torment, and contradictions that the oppressed race experiences during the period after the civil war. Dunbar’s poems in literary English are diverse in subject matter, refined, though less peculiar than his poems in dialect. Poems in literary language more often express aggravated racial consciousness, depth of reflection, a wealth of experiences but, Dunbar showed all the originality of his talent in poetry filled with local color.

Dunbar’s poetry is clearly divided into two types. The first is the poetry mentioned above, written in the southern dialect and recreating the morals and customs of the plantations, the Afro-American farmers. The second type is the traditional lyrics, which go back to sentimentalism and romanticism of that time. Today, as in the Dunbar era, his poems, which are not painted with national color, attract much less attention, although their level is not inferior to the works of his white colleagues. Readers can feel traditional romantic imagery in them.

It is common knowledge that suffering, anxiety, and uncertainty in the future were eternal companions of the Afro-Americans in the late nineteenth century. The younger generation can understand and feel it through the lines of poems that such authors as Paul Laurence Dunbar have left as their legacy. The famous poem “We Wear the Mask” discusses burning passions, opens up the full depth of the experience. This sad confession captured Dunbar’s self-portrait for readers – a black minstrel shedding tears invisible to the world.

We smile, but, great Christ, our cries
To the 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! (Dunbar 18)

Other lines say about how pain and rage in the person’s soul are hidden behind a laughing mask because the world and others do not care about other people’s emotions and feelings.

Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask. (Dunbar 17-18)

The poem “Sympathy” demonstrates, even more, the complexity of the human’s soul and its suffering in the absence of freedom. In a fascinating poem form, the author raises important issues of internal struggle and non-spirit. This work differs significantly from those written in dialect. They demonstrate leniency for slaves, many heroes are represented submissive and not very smart. However, “Sympathy” shows pride in the nation and its struggles. “I know why the caged bird beats his wing / Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;” (Dunbar 28).The pride that arises during reading is replaced by a light pain in the heart by the poem’s end. It is a moment when the reader is fully aware of the sympathy the Dunbar wanted to achieve. The following lines have this effect:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, (Dunbar 28).

Significantly different from the poems analyzed above, the author’s work “When Malindy Sings”. While writing this poem Dunbar used the dialect to emphasize the injustice of slaves’ harassment. Reading and understanding this poem resembles learning a foreign language. The author uses many abbreviated and changed words, which is typical of the dialect: “dat, “nough fu’ “ef” etc. (Dunbar 21) The narrative comes on behalf of a talented African-American woman with no education and no prospects. From the first lines, she appears before readers very brave and criticizes her mistress and her singing: “G’way an’ quit dat noise, Miss Lucy – / Put dat music book away;” (Dunbar 21). Readers see that the woman does not want to give up and shut down – she has feelings, talent, and a free soul.

This poem also wanted to illustrate the popular theory of the poet’s time that African Americans are more talented than whites, who considered themselves a superior race. Despite such courage, critics and readers were supportive of the poet. There is a high probability that literary critics supported Dunbar not only because of the unusual and original beauty of his poetry written in black dialect. In their positions, an element of paternalism is viewed. The belief that by the patronage of the most talented black artists, such as Dunbar, they advocate for the black race and contribute to overcoming prejudice was not the last argument to encourage influential writers to promote the creativity of the Afro-American poet.

At the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, Afro-American authors who addressed popular culture were not the rule. They were a rare exception – and those exceptions remained in the history of Afro-American literature as significant figures. The attitude of authors like Dunbar, to folklore, oral folk creativity, has been mixed, complex, contradictory, and often inconsistent. He understood that for an Afro-American author, it was the only way to arouse the interest of white readers, to declare himself as an original poet with a bright, creative identity, to achieve national recognition.


Dunbar, Paul Laurence. Selected Poems. Courier Corporation, 2012.

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