Paul Laurence Dunbar
Seen my lady home las’ night,
Jump back, honey, jump back
Hel’ huh han’ an sque’z it tight,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
—From “A Negro Love Song” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Born to ex-slaves in 1872, Paul Laurence Dunbar became the first African American to achieve prominence as a poet. Though he lived only 33 years, Dunbar rose to international fame for his signature dialect verse or “plantation talk.”
Growing up in Dayton, Ohio offered Dunbar advantages not granted to southern blacks until decades after emancipation. He was the only black student at his school, where he befriended classmates Orville and Wilbur Wright. Though he didn’t go to college, Dunbar graduated from high school, an achievement not many of his contemporaries could claim. Despite his academic success, the young black man could only find work as an elevator boy, that is, until his poetic genius caught the attention of influential literary figures who nurtured his career