His parents each escaped from slavery and ended up in Dayton, Ohio. His father fought in the Civil War on the Union side and was a hero. His mother taught herself to read in middle age, when the mother of three and working full time to help support the family. She instilled in her youngest son Paul her love and respect for education.
Each of his parents had their own gifts for storytelling. Paul benefited from listening to his father's tales of slavery, his escape to Canada and his harrowing army days. His mother preferred to focus on good times in humorous stories of family life on the plantation. Gentry says, "Years later, the stories that Paul's parent told him would find their way into his poems; he would keep both his father's fury and his mother's humor intact."
Dunbar's first poem to be published was printed in the Dayton newspaper Herald when he was 16 years old and still in high school. He was well liked by his classmates in the public high school where he was the only Black student in his graduating class. He wrote and edited for the school paper and was voted class poet. Just a few years after graduating he convinced a local publisher to produce his first volume of poetry titled Oak and Ivy. At the cost of one dollar per book, he managed to sell enough copies to repay the printing costs and still make a profit. Gantry says,
"Here, in his first book, Dunbar had already struck a balance between a clear-eyed look at the way things are and a more forgiving glance at the way they had been. He would maintain this balance throughout his career and eventually find people willing to part with far more than a dollar to hear it. [...] Whether writing in his own voice or in the dialect of a farmhand, he always aimed his work at any individual confused and pained by the quickly changing world."
Dunbar went on to publish many more books of poetry, short stories, plays and novels. During his lifetime and in the years following he was sometimes criticized for relying on stereotypical portrayals of Black life but in recent years his work has regained a position of respect. At the Poetry Foundation Nikki Giovanni is quoted: "For Giovanni, as for other Dunbar scholars, his work constitutes both a history and a celebration of black life. "There is no poet, black or nonblack, who measures his achievement," she declared. "Even today. He wanted to be a writer and he wrote.""
The thing that impressed me the most in this telling of his life is the emphasis on how focused and passionate he was about his writing. When he graduated high school he was confident that he could get a job as a journalist. No paper in Dayton would hire him because he was Black. He finally got a job as an elevator operator. He kept that job for several years, supporting his mother and continuing to write and submit his work to be published. His first couple books came out while he held the elevator job. His mother wanted him to be a lawyer and at one point he got a job as a clerk, training for the law in this position working for a Dayton lawyer. He quit that job after about a year because it didn't give him enough time to write. He went back to being an elevator operator to pay the bills while spending all his free time writing and continuing to submit his work for publication.
This biography is a discarded book from our library because it is not as attractive to today's students as newer published works with numerous color graphics. You can still get it from online booksellers. Gentry has another more recent biography of Dunbar published in 1996. I would also recommend the newer Black Americans of Achievement series at Chelsea Publishers.
Read several of Dunbar's poems here.
The Nonfiction Monday roundup is at Picture Book of the Day.