Most of us are probably familiar with Maya Angelou’s famous autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But did you know that the title came from a nineteenth-century poem by the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar? It is from his poem “Sympathy,” published in the 1899 collection Lyrics of the Hearthside. Its final verse reads:
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!
Our own American literature collection includes a copy of Dunbar’s first book of poetry: Oak and Ivy, which he self published in 1893.
To provide a bit of background for those unfamiliar with Dunbar, he was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1872. His parents (who separated when he was young) were both formerly enslaved and his father had escaped and served in the 55th Massachusetts regiment during the Civil War. By high school, Paul’s writing acumen was already apparent; he was editor of the school paper and president of the literary society at Central High, where he was the only black student.
After graduation he took a job as an elevator operator; on the side he sold stories to the newspaper, gave poetry readings, and had a stint editing the short-lived African-American newspaper the Dayton Tattler, printed by his friend Orville Wright (yes, that Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio).
In 1893, only a couple years out of high school, Dunbar self-published his first volume of poetry: Oak and Ivy. He paid $125 for it to be printed at the United Brethren Publishing House and sold copies himself for $1 apiece, including offering them to the audience riding his elevator. During the Columbian exposition he headed to the fair in Chicago where he sold copies of his book, got a job working as a clerk for Frederick Douglass, and was invited to recite his poetry.
Our copy of Oak and Ivy is inscribed with a verse of poetry in Dunbar’s hand. There is no addressee, but the date indicates that it was before his trip to Chicago.
Dunbar’s poetry covers a wide range of subjects, but is especially remembered for his poems exploring his racial heritage. On these flanking pages he writes a tribute “To Miss Mary Britton”, an African-American teacher in Lexington Kentucky who spoke out against segregated railcars, and an ode to the departed poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier.
Dunbar chose to open Oak and Ivy with a poem entitled “Ode to Ethiopia.”
O Mother Race! to thee I bring
This pledge of faith unwavering,
This tribute to thy glory.
I know the pangs which thou didst feel,
When Slavery crushed thee with its heel,
With thy dear blood all gory.
Sad days were those-ah, sad indeed!
But through the land the fruitful seed
Of better times was growing.
The plant of freedom upward sprung,
And spread its leaves so fresh and young-
Its blossoms now are blowing.
On every hand in this fair land,
Proud Ethiope’s swarthy children stand
Beside their fairer neighbor;
The forests flee before their stroke,
Their hammers ring, their forges smoke,-
They stir in honest labour.
They tread the fields where honour calls;
Their voices sound through senate halls
In majesty and power.
To right they cling; the hymns they sing
Up to the skies in beauty ring,
And bolder grow each hour.
Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul;
Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll
In characters of fire.
High ‘mid the clouds of Fame’s bright sky
Thy banner’s blazoned folds now fly,
And truth shall lift them higher.
Thou hast the right to noble pride,
Whose spotless robes were purified
By blood’s severe baptism.
Upon thy brow the cross was laid,
And labour’s painful sweat-beads made
A consecrating chrism.
In addition to his poems in standard English, Dunbar also wrote poetry in African-American dialect. Some of these, including “A Banjo Song” appear in Oak and Ivy.
In his second book, Majors and Minors, “majors” referred to the standard English poems and “minors” to the dialect works. The dialect pieces were among the most popular poems in his own time, but have been both praised and criticized since.
Following Oak and Ivy, Dunbar would go on to have a national reputation as a writer. He would publish another 13 poetical works, as well as four novels and four short story collections. This despite the fact that he died of tuberculosis when he was only 33. Since his death, scholars and critics have wrangled over his legacy; many have been concerned about stereotyped or sentimentalized views of African-Americans. But his writing remained inspirational to writers such as Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes and from what I read (not being a poetry scholar myself) modern critical opinion seems to be shifting back in Dunbar’s favor.
This has only been a quick thumbnail sketch and can’t begin to cover the many fascinating facets of Dunbar’s life or the critical discussion of his work. But perhaps it may inspire you to read and experience his poetry for yourself. You are always welcome to make an appointment to see our copy of Oak and Ivy; this helpful write-up from the University of Alabama library also includes links to online copies of most of his work.