Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar was born today in 1872.
Best known for his poems “We Wear the Mask” and “Sympathy” (the poem from which Maya Angelou took the title of her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote dialect poems, other poems, novels, short stories, and essays. Dunbar had served as class poet at his high school in Dayton, Ohio; he later worked as an elevator operator while he wrote in his spare time.
Project or share copies of Dunbar’s poem Sympathy. Read it aloud and ask students to discuss words, lines, and images that stand out to them as particularly meaningful.
Then share with students the critical excerpts on the poem from Modern American Poetry (including earlier and later versions of part of the poem). Ask small groups to read the excerpts and then discuss how the ideas from the three critics change or deepen their understanding of the poem.
Dunbar's entry on the Academy of American Poets website contains biographical information, a collection of poems, and personal correspondence between him and his wife, Alice Nelson-Dunbar.
The Poetry Foundation's collection of resources on Paul Laurence Dunbar includes a biography and several poems.
The Modern American Poetry page for Dunbar includes curated criticism and online examples of Dunbar's illustrated poems.