Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar who was a renowned poet and novelist gained unrivalled recognition for his exceptional pieces. In his illustrious career, he became the first African American author to break the national barriers in his career where he earned himself nationwide acclamation. Dunbar hailed from Dayton, Ohio from a family of Kentucky slaves. Both of Dunbar’s parents enjoyed reading and writing and this was one of the main reasons that he rose to unrivalled prominence in his career. Although he had various ups and downs in his life, he never stopped writing. Dunbar’s poems are considered to be “exotic as well as authentic” as they touch on various areas of the African American community. One of his great pieces Ode to Ethiopia a poem in one of his various collections Lyrics of Lowly Life published in 1896 propelled him to national significance.

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Dunbar in his career earned himself widespread acclamation and criticism all in equal measure. His preferred usage of “dialect” that was typical of the Southern African American popularity was the main reason why he was catapulted into prominence. Although most of his work was written in native English he preferred using dialect even though its marketability option was always strained. One of his poems which were written in native English from Dreams went like “What Dreams we have and how they fly….” A piece written in dialect titled A warm day in winter “greenness on de way; Dat’s de blessed reason I sing all day” Is written in dialect.

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In praising his works, renowned author James Weldon Johnson hailed him as the first pioneer of “American Negro poetry” which he described to be of authentic “literally distinction” (Johnson, 2001). However, some critics seem to think otherwise. He has been ardently accused of the negative portrayal of the black community with the main intention of satisfying the “craving of the white community” (Bois, 1970). This has been blamed on the prospect of having a black writer writing his work for white majority who read his book as well as publishing it.

Dunbar’s critics especially use one of poems about plantation to show what they perceive as the negative side of his work. He has portrayed stereotype images one of these images being that of a “faithful servant” who through his poems feels a sense of loyalty to his munificent master (Wagner, 1973). Braxton a renowned author argues that Dunbar’s use of two faces is as a result of the “double vision” that he inherited both as black and an American which in one way or another threatened to rip him apart. His first hand experiences with slavery also added up to his negative side of portraying stereotypes to satisfy the eyes of the white readers (Braxton, 1993).

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His use of dialect in his poems which in 1896 was reviewed by Howell portrayed him as a poet who’s main strengths was the dialect. In capping it, Howell claimed that Dunbar’s “real strength lied in his usage of dialect” and that there was actually nothing special about his work than just being that the author was “Negro faced” (Braxton, 1993).  Putting his work through several lenses it has been concluded that he was a historicist critique or a Marxist. This conclusion came as a result of the period in which Dunbar wrote his work. It was a time in history which offered him little room to maneuver and also decreased his opportunities to thrive in the writing industry. His work however has given the future generation of writers an avenue in which they can ply their trade. This may be in the form of postmodern criticism or acclamation whichever any writer deems fit to pursue.

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