Paul Laurence Dunbar Made American History and Paved a Path for Future Black Poets

On Nov. 8, 1897, Paul Laurence Dunbar, the son of former slaves, did something that had never happened at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. 

Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar

He gave the first poetry reading by a person of color. It would be 65 years before another Black poet read poetry at the Library.

Dunbar was an employee at the Library, working from mid-afternoon until 9 or 10 p.m. His tasks included retrieving and shelving scientific and medical journals in the building’s hot, dusty stacks. 

It wasn’t an easy job for Dunbar, who suffered from tuberculosis. Still, he was happy to have it. 

Shortly after starting at the Library in Oct. 1897, Dunbar wrote to a friend, “I have landed the position at Washington. It is a small one, but it means a regular income, the which I have always so much wanted.”

Paul Laurence Dunbar takes flight.

Dunbar was born and raised in Ohio. He was the only Black kid in his high school, where he befriended classmate Orville Wright. 

Wright ended up pioneering aviation with his brother. And Dunbar made a path for other Black American writers.

A Dayton newspaper first published some of Dunbar’s pieces. And the man self-published his first poetry collection, Oak and Ivy, in 18993. Working as an elevator operator, Dunbar paid for the book’s printing by selling copies for $1 to his passengers.

Then in 1895, Dunbar published Majors and Minors, a collection that caught the attention of writer William Dean Howells. 

Reviewing the book in Harper’s Weekly, Howells wrote, “It is when we come to Mr. Dunbar’s Minors that we feel ourselves in the presence of a man with a direct and a fresh authority to do the kind of thing he is doing.”

The review shot Dunbar to national attention and aided his hiring by the Library of Congress. 

In 1895, writer Robert G. Ingersoll sent a letter to Librarian of Congress John Russell Young, asking Young to hire Dunbar.

Referencing Dunbar’s Majors and Minors, Ingersoll wrote, “Some of these poems are wonderful. They show great thought on great subjects. They are intense, subtle, passionate and poetic. He has written verse worthy of the greatest American poet. Some of his songs, or lyrics, are filled with touches of pathos–of joy–or real humor.”

“He has written verse worthy of the greatest American poet.”

Robert G. Ingersoll

About a month after Dunbar started working at the Library, the organization moved from the U.S. Capitol building to its new headquarters. Now called the Thomas Jefferson Building, the structure opened on Nov. 1, 1897. 

Dunbar may have delivered the Library’s first poetry reading in its new building.

The reading took place in a reading room for blind patrons on the building’s first floor. Dunbar’s first reading spawned a series of similar events for the vision impaired, some of which local Washington, D.C., newspapers covered.

Paving the way for tomorrow’s Black poets

Dunbar worked for just over a year at the Library. He left at the end of 1898 to focus on his literary pursuits. Dunbar was besieged with authors to teach and write, and the poet wanted the freedom to do so.

Dunbar continued writing poetry, and he produced some fiction, too. His novels include The Uncalled and The Sport of the Gods. Dunbar’s books sold well enough to become the first African American to support themselves full-time through writing. 

While he was at the Library, Dunbar wrote a poem containing a phrase you might recognize. The piece is “Sympathy.” It begins:

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
   When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
   When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

Yes, Maya Angelou borrowed from Dunbar’s “Sympathy” in titling her epic autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Amazon | Bookshop).

Working in the Library’s stifling stacks inspired Dunbar to write “Sympathy.” As his wife, Alice, later explained, “The iron grating of the book stacks in the Library of Congress suggested to him the bars of the bird’s cage. June and July days are hot. All out of doors called and the trees of the shaded streets of Washington were tantalizingly suggestive of his beloved streams and fields. The torrid sun poured its rays down into the courtyard of the library and heated the iron grilling of the book stacks until they were like prison bars in more senses than one.”

But what Dunbar meant as a metaphor for working in the Library of Congress, Maya Angelou saw as an expression of being Black in America. 

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s health continued to deteriorate, aided by his growing alcoholism. He died at 33. 

But Dunbar blazed many trails, including being the first African American to earn a full-time living as a writer. And he held the first poetry reading in what is still the world’s most extensive library.

Books by Paul Laurence Dunbar

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