Gayle writes with the perspective of someone who has lived through the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, the Black Power movement that changed the way that whites saw African Americans and the way that African Americans saw themselves. Although the author is critical of Dunbar’s dialect poetry, he is also compassionate toward him regarding the reasons that he chose to write these poems. He states that Dunbar was not a great poet and that his fame was mostly attributable to the political forces that led him to create dialect poetry in order to gain an audience.
Young readers, both African American and white, will be inspired by Dunbar’s discipline and belief in himself as a writer. He was strong in resisting the efforts of others, primarily his mother, who wanted him to choose another occupation. His independence and persistence provide a good example.
As painful as it may be for some readers to learn about the institution of slavery, it is important for relationships with one another, especially among African Americans and white Americans, to know what took place. Gayle touches on the forces at work, the destruction of the slaves’ memory of Africa, and the myth of happy slaves. In Dunbar’s time, African Americans were attempting to assimilate into mainstream culture without being subjected to violence, as lynchings were common, and trying to support themselves in a society that offered them few resources.
Gayle focuses on Dunbar’s conflict concerning his dialect poetry and his more serious poetry. He shows the pressure that Dunbar felt to use light subject matter and how, eventually, this compromise was one too great for a sensitive individual such as Dunbar. Gayle believes that this resignation to write more of what people wanted caused cynicism, bitterness, the dissolution of Dunbar’s marriage, his alcoholism, and his illness.
Nevertheless, Gayle gives Dunbar credit for his accomplishments and helps the reader understand by introducing the politics of Dunbar’s time. This context is provided through the words of important historical figures such as Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Each leader’s philosophy is explored as Dunbar speaks about them in his poetry, showing how their ideas affected his work and his beliefs about himself as an...
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Gayle’s book reveals the author’s respect for Dunbar and shows an understanding of his failure to make the choices in subject matter that would help African Americans become more free from their oppressors. As a writer and educator, Gayle seeks to empower the black race through his own achievements and through his in-depth study of Dunbar. Young African-American people who are interested in poetry, writing, or any artistic achievement would benefit from reading about Dunbar. Understanding their artistic heritage, and historical oppression, is necessary for all young artists, but is particularly important for young African Americans.
Although several biographies of Dunbar were published prior to this one—Lida Wiggins’ The Life and Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1902), Benjamin Brawley’s Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poet of His People (1936), Virginia Cunningham’s Paul Laurence Dunbar and His Song (1947), and Gould’s That Dunbar Boy—Gayle’s was the first biography to look at Dunbar’s work and the two types of poetry as a reflection of the internal struggle that Dunbar experienced as an African American. Gayle sought to express the turmoil that Dunbar felt as he turned toward his ambition to be taken seriously as a poet, not simply as a “Negro poet.”
Young adults are no longer shielded from the knowledge of racism; rather, they know something about the civil rights struggle or experience the separation that still exists between the races. Reading Gayle’s work about an influential African-American poet will help them to understand more about what racism has cost all Americans and about the price paid by African-American artists. They will also learn about the courage required by those who insist on being artists, regardless of their oppression.