Oak and Ivy Essay - Critical Context

Addison Gayle

Critical Context

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.