Poetry Sunday: Paul Laurence Dunbar

I’m especially pleased to be able to showcase this new poet in this week’s edition of Poetry Sunday. In the past, I’ve highlighted the lives and the accomplishments of famous African-American freethinkers like W.E.B. DuBois and Zora Neale Hurston, showing that religious skepticism and freethought have always played a lively role in the American black community. Today’s post offers another example of that.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Ohio in June 1872 to two ex-slaves from Kentucky. His parents separated when he was very young, and he was raised by his mother, who supported the family by working as a washerwoman. Despite their poverty, she taught him a love of reading and a desire for education, and he began composing his own poems by the age of six and was reciting poetry in public by the age of nine. Though he was the only African-American student in his class at the otherwise all-white Dayton Central High School, he excelled academically and even became class president. He also served briefly as editor of the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper published by his classmates Orville and Wilbur Wright.

After graduation, Dunbar launched his literary career with his first collection of poems, Oak and Ivy (1892). His second book, Majors and Minors (1895) was well-received critically and brought him national attention in newspapers and magazines such as Harper’s Weekly and the Sunday Evening Post. His work attracted admirers such as the abolitionist hero and ex-slave Frederick Douglass, who called him “the most promising young colored man in America”, as well as Booker T. Washington and President Theodore Roosevelt.

Dunbar wrote superb poetry both in standard English and in African-American dialect, though it was always a source of resentment on his part that the latter tended to be more sought-after by editors. Nevertheless, he was a prolific author throughout his life, turning out poetry, novels, short story collections, lyrics for musicals, and even a play – In Dahomey, the first Broadway musical written and performed entirely by African-Americans – right up until his untimely death in 1906, at the age of 33, from tuberculosis. Some of his work had a strong flavor of freethought, as we can see in today’s poem.

Religion

I am no priest of crooks nor creeds,
For human wants and human needs
Are more to me than prophets’ deeds;
And human tears and human cares
Affect me more than human prayers.

Go, cease your wail, lugubrious saint!
You fret high Heaven with your plaint.
Is this the “Christian’s joy” you paint?
Is this the Christian’s boasted bliss?
Avails your faith no more than this?

Take up your arms, come out with me,
Let Heav’n alone; humanity
Needs more and Heaven less from thee.
With pity for mankind look ’round;
Help them to rise — and Heaven is found.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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