Paul Laurence Dunbar: The First African American Poet Laureate


ACLS Fellowship Program




Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was the first African American author born after slavery to become an international phenomenon. By the time he passed away, his career as a prodigious writer of poetry, fiction, drama, and essays had suggested that he negotiated a personal crisis. His loyalties were torn between demonstrating his commitment to racial-political progress and writing what prominent literary critics and publishers expected of him and fellow African American writers. This project provides deep biographical insight into the examples and limits of this crisis in Dunbar’s literature, life, and times. The story begins with how Paul's parents escaped Kentucky slavery, survived the Civil War, and settled in Dayton, Ohio; how their turbulent marriage and divorce fatefully scarred his relationship to loved ones; and, early on in his life, how his artistic and intellectual embrace of literature oriented his cultural and political understanding of the world.