by Pa Rock
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was born to parents who had escaped from slavery, and the grim African experience in America is a pervasive theme in his writings. Dunbar died from tuberculosis at the tender age of thirty-three, but even in that tragically short life, he was able to compile a substantial body of literary work that included a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, five novels, and a play which was the first all-black production to run on Broadway.
At one time Dunbar, who had been student body president of a basically all-white high school, published a newspaper aimed at an African-American readership. The printing shop that put out the newspaper belonged to two of his friends, Orville and Wilbur Wright!
His poetry is simple and speaks directly to the heart. The following selection, Sympathy, is a good example of Dunbar's elegance with a sparing use of words, and it demonstrates the impact that he still has on modern writers like Maya Angelou.
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
I KNOW what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals —
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting —
I know why he beats his wing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!