What was Paul Laurence Dunbar's deeper message and legacy throughout his career as a poet?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Paul Laurence Dunbar was historically important because he was among the first well-known African-American poets and because his stories and poems provide an important record of African-American life in the decades after the Civil War. Born on 27 June 1872 to parents who were freed slaves, Dunbar drew on his family background in many of his works. Both his mother and father were highly literate, his father having taught himself to read clandestinely while still enslaved and his mother attended night school. Dunbar himself started publishing poems and working as an editor for a local newspaper while he was still in high school, but despite his obvious literary and academic talents struggled to find work. 

Dunbar's poems are divided into two types, those written in standard literary English and those which attempt to reproduce in writing the vocabulary, syntax, and pronunciation of African-American speech. The latter group was the most successful and significant, proving for many readers a unique encounter with African-American culture on its own terms in its own language. 

Dunbar's short stories The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories (1900) and his last novel The Sport of Gods (1902) both serve as striking condemnations of slavery and its aftermath. Although some of his works wrre written out of financial necessity, and have stereotypical images of black people that critics condemn as pandering to a white audience, many of Dunbar's works are either directly critical of racism or under a conventional surface still have a deeper significance making us aware of the injustice of racial inequality. For example, Dunbar's "Little Brown Baby", although it appears on the surface a charming and simple dialect poem about a baby, suggests in its ending that by virtue of skin color, the baby will not grown up to a "life of ease":

Come to you' pallet now — go to yo' res';

Wisht you could allus know ease an' cleah skies;

Wisht you could stay jes' a chile on my breas'—

Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes!

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