Monday, June 27, 2022

Quote of the Day (Paul Laurence Dunbar, on African-American Valor in the Civil War)

“Yes, the Blacks enjoy their freedom,
And they won it dearly, too;
For the life blood of their thousands
Did the southern fields bedew.
In the darkness of their bondage,
In the depths of slavery’s night,
Their muskets flashed the dawning,
And they fought their way to light.
“They were comrades then and brothers,
Are they more or less to–day?
They were good to stop a bullet
And to front the fearful fray.
They were citizens and soldiers,
When rebellion raised its head;
And the traits that made them worthy,—
Ah! those virtues are not dead.”—African-American poet-novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), “The Colored Soldiers,” in Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896)
I wanted to include some verses by Paul Laurence Dunbar, born 150 years ago today in Dayton, Ohio. Even before reading the above lines, I had been interested in the contribution of African-American soldiers in the Civil War.
But I think Dunbar—one of the first African-Americans to earn a living from writing—invested his poem “The Colored Soldiers” with even greater depth of feeling because his father Joshua, a Kentucky slave who escaped to Canada before the war, returned to serve with the 55th Massachusetts Regiment.
After Joshua separated from his wife Matilda, Paul was raised by his mother, who encouraged him to pursue writing. From an early age, he displayed his talent, editing while in high school a short-lived paper The Dayton Tattler (printed, incidentally, by his classmate, future aviation pioneer Orville Wright).
In certain ways, Dunbar’s career resembles that of Stephen Crane. Both produced an enormous both of prose and poetry, drank heavily and died far too soon of tuberculosis. Both also dealt at one point or another with war and racism.
The title of Maya Angelou’s famous memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, derives from a Dunbar poem, “Sympathy.”
Five years ago, filmmaker Frederick Lewis created a feature-length documentary on Dunbar’s life, Behind the Mask, taken from the title of one of the writer’s poems.

No comments: