Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What would Paul do?

I cannot remember when I first heard of Paul Laurence Dunbar. He was not unknown to me when he came up in a college poetry class. Each student was asked to select any poem from within the MASSIVE volume we were working & diagram/outline/do that breakdown thing.

I did not choose We Wear the Mask although I am reliably informed someone always does. In those days before GOOGLE it was possible to get intimate with this or any piece of any writing & reasonably not know the color of the writer's skin. The student who had chosen this poem was stunned by this new level to her choice. Especially on learning that this son of freed slaves made his literary bones while also pandering to the post-war South with works like The Deserted Plantation. A man has to pay the bills, after all.

Dunbar found other ways to pay his bills, too. He started work as an elevator operator, selling his first book to people who rode in same elevator. After his second book was published, he was able to devote himself to his writing, although he still did a stint at the Library of Congress. In all he published twelve books of poetry, five novels, four books of short stories & a play. He died today in 1906, before his 34th birthday.

But the last time I saw Dunbar was somewhere else entirely. A was in Washington, DC doing a presentation for the NSF & I tagged along because it was cherry blossom time. That Saturday we went to the Smithsonian, picking & choosing which buildings to go into. A very much wanted to see the National Air & Space Museum & while he joined the school tours through the space capsules, etc. I wandered over to a less-trafficked exhibit. There was Dunbar, staring back at me from a life size photograph of him in front of the shop owned by his childhood schoolmates, Orville & Wilbur Wright. The Wright brothers are credited with giving him access to their printing press & helping to finance his African -American newspaper, the Dayton Tattler.

If you are looking for an easy way to begin understanding what Dunbar would do, let me suggest Jump Back, Honey. Yes, it is a children's book but you can never start learning too soon. Or too late.  As for what would Paul do?  As usual I do not know, I just think he might be the most famous person you never heard of.

//for the curious I choose Theodore Roethke's I Knew A Woman & I am still enchanted by the line The shapes a bright container can contain.

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