Last weekend my husband and I visited the Paul Laurence Dunbar House here in Dayton, Ohio. Being a poet myself I have wanted to check out the historical site for a while. When we arrived, I was happy to see quite a few others there, including several kids. I noticed that we were the only “white” people there (other than the tour guide), but I hoped that was just coincidence and didn’t mean that people from different ethnic backgrounds ignored this part of history. I have noticed over the years that many people tend to only care about the history of their particular heritage, which I find sad. There is so much to be learned by experiencing different cultures and studying the lives of people from all kinds of backgrounds.
Before we toured Paul’s house, we all watched a mini documentary on the life and times of Paul Laurence Dunbar. As the film went on, I began to feel worse and worse. They talked about how Paul was highly educated for his time, even becoming class president and the founding editor of his high school newspaper, but was still denied jobs in the fields he studied, because as they put it, “an uneducated white man was still considered better than an educated negro”. Paul eventually had to take a lowly job as an elevator operator. They went on to explain how even though Paul did eventually gain some notoriety as a poet, he was truly saddened because the public refused to notice his deeper, more thoughtful poems written in standard English and instead only celebrated the lighthearted ethnic “dialect” poetry. Even worse, they used his poems to back up their belief that African Americans were not as smart or important as “white folks” and even worse, that they had actually enjoyed being slaves.
When we walked over to the house, the tour guide explained that Paul and his family were the first African Americans to move into this nicer part of town (much to the dismay of some in the neighborhood). Most of the people of his race were forced to live in the “ghetto” in little shanty homes that were nothing more than thrown together huts. As I listened to all this I looked at the faces of the sweet, innocent kids around me. I felt awful that they have to live in a world where this kind of prejudice once existed (and still exists), even if the circumstances have gotten better since Paul’s day. I know it isn’t my fault and that I didn’t cause it, but I felt awful that my ancestors were likely a part of the society that so mistreated (and continues to mistreat) an entire race of people.
I could write about some of the other unfair things that were talked about, like the Dunbar family’s slavery background or how African Americans soldiers were considered “good to stop a bullet” but not good enough to be appreciated…however, I think a few of Paul’s words capture the frustration and unfairness best –
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!