If Death should claim me for her own to-day,
And softly I should falter from your side,
Oh, tell me, loved one, would my memory stay,
And would my image in your heart abide?
~ “Love-Song” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Over the past several weeks, I’ve spent many hours with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry. The university library where I work is officially named after him, and Dunbar was a significant figure in Dayton’s history. So since last fall, I’ve been working with a committee here on campus to plan out an entire month of events to encourage the study of Dunbar’s life and works, and offering new ways to “Experience: Paul Laurence Dunbar.”
The kick-off was last Tuesday night, and it combined several pieces of the events which are available throughout the month. The complete series is listed on the poster above. Since I realize most of you aren’t anywhere nearby, I thought I’d share some of what we’re doing in a few posts this February. So, like the folks on Tuesday night, here’s a little intro to what all we’ve been up to with Paul Laurence Dunbar.
So, who was Dunbar? Excellent question! Dunbar was a Dayton native who was considered one of the first nationally known African American writers. Despite living only 33 years, Dunbar produced 12 books of poetry as well as a number of novels and books of short stories. The son of former slaves, Dunbar attended school and was a high-school classmate of Orville Wright. Dunbar was best known for his poems in dialect, but he wrote beautiful poems in standard English as well. One of his best known poems, “Sympathy,” from 1899, which includes a line made famous by Maya Angelou, “I know why the caged bird sings.”
Since 1992, the Wright State University Libraries has maintained a Digital Text collection of Dunbar’s published poetry on our website. It consistently gets the largest number of hits out of any other portion of our site, in fact. So one of our contributions to the month-long Dunbar celebration was to completely revise, update, and relaunch the Paul Laurence Dunbar portion of our website. We added images to our photo gallery, wrote a new biography, and now provide information on visiting Dunbar sites in Dayton as well as a whole long list of resources about Dunbar for anyone interested in learning more about him. While our fabulous web designer developed the look and motion of the site, one of my jobs was to create and update content. That included proofreading and editing the code behind all 430+ Dunbar poems, which means I read each of them at least three times. There were some nights I swear I ended up dreaming in dialect! But it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be able to surround myself with one person’s poetry so thoroughly and completely.
Anyway, on this February Monday, I hope you’ll take a moment and come check out our Dunbar site! Dunbar’s poetry influenced later writers during the Harlem Renaissance and throughout the 20th century and made an amazing contribution to American poetry and literature.