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'There would be no 'Hamilton' without Dunbar's work.' Marking Paul Laurence Dunbar's legacy at 150

Paul Laurence Dunbar June 27, 1872 to February 9, 1906.
National Park Service
Paul Laurence Dunbar lived June 27, 1872 to February 9, 1906.

A year-long commemoration is underway honoring the 150th anniversary of the birth of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Born in 1872 to parents who had been enslaved, Paul Laurence Dunbar was raised in Dayton, Ohio. He would become one of the most important and influentialAfrican American poets of all time.

"He's the first African American poet to make his living by his pen," explains Minnita Daniel-Cox, DMA, founder of the Dunbar Music Archive and the Dunbar Library and Archive. "He is part of the first generation of freeborn enslaved peoples in the United States, and he completely changes the game and establishes and is really important in development of the Harlem Renaissance."

She explains he did so by using standard English and dialect in his works, which number more than 400, including 12 books of poetry, four novels, four books of short stories, and the lyrics to many popular songs.

"He takes the dialect poetry, which had been used in a really racist and stereotypical way, and he turns it on its head," she says. "His characters are these similar tropes, but they're giving this scathing critical commentary of society."

His influence is seen throughout history. The widely known phrase and title of Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a line from his 1899 poem, Sympathy.

"His collaborations with Will Marion Cook are some of the first examples that we have of contemporary musical theater — there would be no Hamilton without Dunbar's work," she points out.

"This was also an attempt at reclaiming the way African Americans were portrayed in the arts. They tried to reclaim minstrelsy and turn it around. African Americans were definitely making huge strides in music — classical, jazz, gospel — around the turn of the 20th century. He wrote poetry but he also did these wonderful works with the stage."

Dunbar died tragically young at the age of 33 from tuberculosis.

The keynote event of the "Dunbar 150" year-long commemoration is Saturday, June 25, at the Victoria Theater in Dayton. It will feature performances of his work, musical selections and more.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.