#WritingWednesday: Summer in the South

As this is my second summer in the American South, I am still very much a newbie. I am new to the humidity, the crickets at night coming out of the dark on a wave of sound, the extreme air conditioning that has me wearing layers indoors and then wholly unprepared to walk out my front door! I have started to go on walks in my local park and the trees provide a welcome respite from the heat, but I am learning that getting up very early before the heat is a good idea. 

Not only is this poem perfect for the season, Paul Laurence Dunbar's is in many ways quintessentially American. While he is ultimately viewed as a success, his story is one of hard work, determination, prejudice, grievance, and the importance of support from the community.

 

Summer in the South - By Paul Laurence Dunbar

The oriole sings in the greening grove
                          As if he were half-way waiting,
                          The rosebuds peep from their hoods of green,
                          Timid and hesitating.
The rain comes down in a torrent sweep
             And the nights smell warm and piney,
The garden thrives, but the tender shoots
             Are yellow-green and tiny.
Then a flash of sun on a waiting hill,
             Streams laugh that erst were quiet,
The sky smiles down with a dazzling blue
             And the woods run mad with riot.

 

About the Poet

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Born on June 27, 1872, Dunbar was the son of Joshua and Matilda Murphy Dunbar, two freed slaves from Kentucky. Dunbar is one of the first African American poets to be recognized by his country for his literary contributions.

Dunbar was a hit with the local Dayton community before he received wider recognition. By the age of fourteen, his poems could be found in the Dayton Herald and, as a high school student, he edited a newspaper published by peer Orville Wright, the Dayton Tattler. Dunbar was the only black student in his graduating class at Central High School in Dayton.

Unable to afford college and encountering barriers due to his race, Dunbar worked as an elevator operator. Luckily, a former teacher invited him to read his poems to the Western Association of Writers. An instant favorite he received support from popular poets such as James Whitcomb Riley. This encouraged Dunbar to self-publish a collection of poetry called Oak and Ivy in 1893. He sold his book for one dollar to the people who rode his elevator in order to offset the publishing costs.

Called by a desire to work at the first World's Fair, Dunbar moved to Chicago. There, he befriended Frederick Douglass. Douglass, calling Dunbar “the most promising young colored man in America,” assisted Dunbar in finding a job as a clerk and organized opportunities for Dunbar to read his poetry. His poems began to reach a wider audience by 1895 with major national magazines and newspapers publishing his works. His second collection was the result of further assistance from friends, Majors and Minors (Hadley & Hadley, 1895). The "minor" poems were those written in dialect and earned his greater attention while the "major" poems were in standard English and greater in number. At this time, writing in a Southern dialect was often contrived to mock blacks. Instead, Dunbar used dialect to make social commentary, drawing in his parents' backgrounds.

Paul Laurence Dunbar with his mother, Matilda Burton Murphy Dunbar,  c. 1900.

Paul Laurence Dunbar with his mother, Matilda Burton Murphy Dunbar,  c. 1900.

While on a six-month reading tour of England in 1897 with a third poetry collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1896), Dunbar met the Queen of England. With his return to America, Dunbar was hired as a clerk at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. He married Alice Ruth Moore who was also a writer and published Folks from Dixie (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1898), a collection of short stories, the novel The Uncalled (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1898), then two further collections of poetry, Lyrics of the Hearthside (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1899) and Poems of Cabin and Field (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1899). During this time Dunbar also wrote lyrics for several musical reviews.

By 1898 Dunbar had become very ill with tuberculosis and left his position as clerk, spending his time fully on writing and giving readings. The following five years saw Dunbar write three further novels and three collections of short stories. His separation from his wife in 1902 was followed by what is considered a nervous breakdown and pneumonia. Over this period he produced several collections of poetry such as Lyrics of Love and Laughter (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1903), Howdy, Howdy, Howdy (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1905), and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1903). However, Dunbar suffered from depression and, while successful, experienced many frustrations with his career.

Dunbar passed away in his mother's house in Dayton Ohio on February 9, 1906, at the age of thirty-three. He died held by his mother as the 23rd Psalm ("Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death") was recited, witnessed by doctors, neighbors, and his secretary. Recognized as the greatest African-American poet of his day, the state of Ohio purchased his mother's house after her death to make it the first state memorial to an African-American in the country. At a time when African-Americans were considered to have little of value to say, Dunbar was the first black writer to be accepted by American literary establishment. 

Adapted from Academy of American Poets.com and Dayton.com.

 

 

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Your Turn

Go for a walk in your neighbourhood. What do you see? What do you hear? How do you know it is summer? What says "summer" in your community? What is the vernacular of your area? Are there ways of speaking that are unique where you live? Tune your ear.

Write a poem painting a picture using the sounds and images you collect on your walk.


Recognized for her passion, knowledge, and support of her clients’ individual journeys toward their best selves, Frances Mulinix brings over 20 years of experience in coaching, voice, movement, writing, and performance to support her clients in breaking down blocks and reaching achievements they had previously not thought possible. Transform your relationship to your mind, body, and voice, bringing new confidence and creativity to your life.