As the son of former slaves, Dunbar learned from his mother and father Matilda and Joshua, who had clandestinely taught himself to read and write, some of the obstables that faced him. However, as the only black student when he was in high school in Dayton, Ohio, he became class president and class. His friendship with Orville Wright, a classmate, and the encouragement of the critic William Dean Howells and the promotion of his poetry by James Newton Matthews and James Whitcomb Riley, Dunbar attained recognition and success.
Nevertheless, Dunbar soon realized that he was not valued primarily for the poems he considered his major work, the ones written in standard English. His readers, who were mainly white, preferred his poems written in dialect. For his readers, these poems reinforced the stereotypes of contented black living in harmony on Southern plantations. A disappointed Dunbar remarked,
You know, of course, that I didn't start as a dialect poet. I simply came to the conclusion that I could write it as well, if not better than anybody else I knew of, and that by doing so I should gain a hearing, and now they don't want me to write anything but dialect.
This remark refects the message of Dunbar's poem "We Wear the Mask,"
We wer the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheks and shades our eyes--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Dunbar did not cease striving, however, for the true recognition that he deserved, an act also connoted in his last lines of this poem:
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask.
His volume of poems, Oak and Ivy (1893) printed at his own expense, which he sold on the elevator he worked are testimony to the spirit of the "poet laureate of the Negro race."