Last week’s poet, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, seems to have been something of an embattled poet on our own fair forums. So hopefully this week’s spotlight will catch a little more shine from the public. Another American, this one from the later period of the 19th century and the early portions of the 20th, is a true milestone in the United States’ poetic journey, being one of the first African-American poets to gain national acclaim: Paul Laurence Dunbar.
A native Ohioan, and the son of escaped slaves, Dunbar lost his father at just 12 years old. The only African-American student in his high school, he appeared keenly aware of the pressure on his person–but did not let it, nor the death of his father, hold him back. Rather, he excelled. Becoming the editor of the school newspaper, and eventually, class president (as well as president of the school’s literary society), he proved consistently that a determined soul can achieve anything he wishes, no matter the obstacle.
By the time he was publishing his literature, he was also taking an active hand in the success of his works. Rather than leaving it to the publishers, this was a man that actively hit the streets, earning back his investments and making more than his fair share on the side by selling copies of his works personally. This said, his life was one of financial difficulty as, from a young age, he found himself having to support his mother in addition to himself. Much of his life was spent in debt, even as fellow writers delivered consistent, favorable reviews of each successive new work.
By the time of his death, Dunbar had written a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, five novels, and a play. He had even traveled abroad, to bask in the wonder of London’s own literary circuit. He made heavy–and engaging–use of dialect in much of his work, though he also proved over the course of time that he had no trouble conforming to the more picky poetic types’ concepts of poetry either.
He inevitably died, as so many others of the age, of tuberculosis, at the age of 33.
Today, we offer up his poem, “We Wear the Mask,” for your viewing pleasure.
We Wear the Mask
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 overwise,
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!
~Paul Laurence Dunbar