The year 2022 marks the 150th anniversary of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s birth. The son of a formerly enslaved mother and father, the father having run away from enslavement to serve as a Union soldier in the Civil War, Dunbar was the only Black student at his high school in Dayton, Ohio. He was a close friend and classmate of Orville and Wilbur Wright, whose father was a bishop in the Church of the Brethren. Together they shared dreams of flight. Dunbar wrote six volumes of poetry, as well as four novels, and many librettos, songs, and essays. He attained popular success, not only with African Americans, but also with mainstream audiences. Drawing creatively on vernacular speech, oral tradition, and classic sources from English literature, such as the Romantic poets, Dunbar claimed a rich linguistic heritage and occupied a powerful and aesthetically prophetic interstitial space. He made a way for the innovations of the Harlem Renaissance that would follow, and his poems still speak to us today.
The Civil War had ended only seven years before Dunbar was born, and he came into a world in which it was dangerous to be a Black man. Against this backdrop, I read Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” as a schematic for how to interpret and understand his poetry. The mask is more than a metaphor or a symbol; it is the poet’s means of negotiating moral and linguistic space to attend to his own invisible wounds and contribute to justice-making for a community in need of understanding and care.
My first introduction to the voice of Dunbar came in the context of African American oral tradition. My mother recited Dunbar’s poetry to me when I was literally a babe in the cradle. Members of my community performed Dunbar’s poetry, especially his dialect verse, on numerous celebratory occasions, especially in the African Methodist Episcopal Church that I attended during my childhood. I learned to listen, repeat, retell, and recite his poetry. Recitation, and especially call-and-response recitation, became a way of liberating the poetry from the page and changing the container for the work, opening moral space and carefully negotiating complex meanings in immersive Black space. It also became a way of experiencing poetry in the body, finding joy in the moment, and laying the groundwork for today’s spoken-word movement. You could even preach Dunbar’s “An Ante-Bellum Sermon” and simultaneously make fun of both your minister and the body politic. The laughter was healing, and it was ours.
My first vocation was to be a poet. I grew in that vocation, claiming space and presence, sometimes understood, sometimes not, but always grasping the power of poetry to mediate space and to address invisible injury. Early in teaching at the university, my second vocation, I lectured on Dunbar in my literature classes, even though his work was out of favor and out of print. One day, while standing over the copier, I closed my tattered copy of The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1913) and began a project of reclamation and recovery. By reviewing articles, giving papers, participating in roundtables, keynoting conferences, and performing Dunbar’s work, I became part of a community committed to recognizing the Dunbar legacy—including the performers Dylan Pritchett, Rex Ellis, and Gran’daddy Junebug (Mitch Capel); the scholars and poets Herbert Woodward Martin, Eleanor Alexander, Elizabeth Alexander, Willie Harrell, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Lauri Ramey, Tom Morgan, Gene Jarrett, Gloria Hull, and others, especially LaVerne Sci, longtime historic site manager of the Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton.
Religion and spirituality play a large role in Dunbar’s poetry, as in “Sympathy,” which may have been written, in part, in response to what he saw as “the irrevocable harm” caused to his career by William Dean Howells, whose commentary, he thought, trivialized his more vernacular dialect poems. What if the caged bird’s song, or the poem itself, the poet’s comfort, is literally the prayer flung upward to heaven?
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,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!
What if, in “We Wear the Mask,” the mask covers and conceals the outpouring of the traumatized soul to Christ?
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!
Dunbar’s first volume, Oak and Ivy (1893), was published by the Church of the Brethren. Is Dunbar’s impulse toward spiritual transport and flight, like his mother’s singing of the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in “When Malindy Sings?” Is this something Orville and Wilbur Wright saw when they took Dunbar’s poems to their father, Milton, a bishop in the Church of the Brethren? Did the Church of the Brethren Press publish Oak and Ivy because of the spirituality they saw in Dunbar’s poems?
It has been said that faith is no stranger to trauma; that, in fact, trauma often gives birth to faith. Sometimes Dunbar’s spirituality and belief, like his protest, is hidden behind the mask, as in “The Haunted Oak,” a poem about a lynching. “The Haunted Oak” owes a debt to “The Dream of the Rood,” a poem about the crucifixion of Christ. Like the eighth-century Old English poem, whose authorship has been lost to eternity, “The Haunted Oak” is a dream-poem in which the tree speaks about a betrayal and a torturous death:
Pray why are you so bare, so bare,
Oh, bough of the old oak-tree;
And why, when I go through the shade you throw,
Runs a shudder over me?
My leaves were green as the best, I trow,
And sap ran free in my veins,
But I saw in the moonlight dim and weird
A guiltless victim’s pains.
I bent me down to hear his sigh;
I shook with his gurgling moan,
And I trembled sore when they rode away,
And left him here alone.
Here Dunbar uses his mask to talk about a complex subject while also commenting on white Christianity and systemic evil, something he could not have done openly:
Oh, the judge, he wore a mask of black,
And the doctor one of white,
And the minister, with his oldest son,
Was curiously bedight.
To be “bedight” is to be adorned. Why is this minister adorned with a mask? Why is he hiding his face and that of his son? What are they doing at a lynching? Why are they there? Why is the minister standing by while an innocent man is betrayed and hung upon a tree, just like Jesus? What kind of Christianity is this, Dunbar asks, but he has to wear the mask to do it. This extra-judicial killing, sanctioned by the judge, the minister, a duplicitous legal system, and the church, has blighted the tree and wounded the soul of the poet:
And never more shall leaves come
On a bough that bears the ban; I am burned with dread, I am
dried and dead,
From the curse of a guiltless
Dunbar’s “The Haunted Oak,” like the tree itself, remains a site of memory for a Black community whose values clash with the reality of their existence as lived, not imagined—a community in need of moral encouragement. “The Haunted Oak” is also a religious poem in search of an audience adept enough at negotiation to see through the mask and embrace its critique of white supremacy and racialized violence. In this Black Lives Matter moment, this Sankofa moment of looking back to the past to ask how our ancestors survived the unimaginable things that they lived through, Dunbar’s poems accomplish the work of transformation by reaching across the generations to let Black readers know that their struggles and their lives matter. He offers the comfort of the ancestor, or of what the poet Michael S. Harper might have called “a healing song for the inner ear.”
This essay originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2022 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2022 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.