Today is the birthday of the great African American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906). The first African American poet to gain widespread acceptance in America, he wrote a dozen books of poetry, four novels, four books of short stories, and a play. The phrase “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, used as a book title by Maya Angelou, came from a poem of Dunbar’s.
While helped in his career by admirers like James Whitcomb Rileyand William Dean Howells, his principle struggle was in getting them (and the public) to accept his “straight” writings, as opposed to that which was written in a comforting “darkie” dialect. Which of course leads us to our vaudeville connection, for Dunbar wrote lyrics for vaudeville songs such as “Who Dat Say Chicken In Dis Crowd?”, as well as the lyrics to all the songs in In Dahomey (1903) the first all African American musical on Broadway. Dunbar contracted TB in 1900 and died of it six years later.
My pen pal the playwright Sandra Seaton put him onto my radar a few months ago — her grandmother used to give dramatic readings of Dunbar’s poetry early in the last century. Thanks, Sandra!
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.