“I know why the caged bird sings!” wrote Paul Laurence Dunbar in Sympathy, a poem that sought to describe his experience as an African-American living in Dayton and later in Toledo and Washington D.C., where he worked for awhile in the Library of Congress to support himself and his wife Alice while he wrote and read his poetry whenever he could.
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals-
I know what the caged bird feels!
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!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,-
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings-
I know why the caged bird sings!
Paul Laurence Dunbar’s father Joshua escaped from slavery and served in the 5th Massachusetts Colored Calvary Regiment during the Civil War. The family was poor, and after the elder Dunbar left the family, his wife Matilda supported her children by working in Dayton as a washerwoman and inspired her son to begin reciting and writing poetry as early as age six.
Dunbar was the only African-American in his class at Dayton Central High where he was a member of the debating society, editor of the school paper, and president of the school’s literary society. With help from the Wright brothers, he published the Dayton Tattler, an African-American newsletter.
In 1892, with literary figures such as James Witcomb Riley beginning to take notice, Dunbar decided to publish his first book of poems, the Oak and Ivy. It was his second book, Majors and Minors, that propelled him to national fame. The novelist and widely respected literary critic William Dean Howells praised Dunbar’s book in one of his weekly columns and launched Dunbar’s name into the most respected literary circles across the country.
As is too often the case with creative minds, Dunbar suffered from depression stemming from the end of his marriage and declining health, which in turn drove him to a dependence on alcohol, further damaging his wellbeing. He continued to write however, and ultimately produced 12 books of poetry, four books of short stories, a play and five novels.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was honored as a poet and novelist, but rarely did the larger community in which he lived and worked and wrote and served honor him as a full human being. Tomorrow is the 98th anniversary of his death at age 33.
Paul Robeson was only eight when Dunbar died, but like the nationally known poet, Robeson always faced the pain of being black in the United States. Like Dunbar he too learned that accomplishment can win respect and applause, but not full acceptance.
Paul Robeson enjoyed success that was unparalleled among African Americans in the United States in the 1930s and ’40s, but at the height of his artistic career he turned his attention to human rights, becoming an eloquent and often controversial speaker against racial prejudice in the United States, colonialism in Africa, and economic injustice throughout the world. He refused to compromise his progressive political convictions in the face of mounting pressure during the 1950s which damaged and eventually shortened his career.
Paul Dunbar’s mother was a former slave. Robeson’s mother was a schoolteacher and abolitionist, although he never really knew her because she died when he was six. Robeson’s father was a former slave who worked his way through Lincoln University in Pennsylvania to become a minister.
After graduating from Sommerville High School with honors, Robeson accepted an academic scholarship to become only the third African American student to attend Rutgers University where he excelled in academics, won his class oratorical prize four years in a row, was elected Phi Beta Kappa, and became the Valedictorian of his 1919 graduating class.
He also stood out in athletics, earning 17 letters in baseball, basketball, football and track. Rutgers never had a black player on any of its athletic teams. At his first practice on the football field several players piled on him the first chance they got, broke his nose, sprained his right shoulder and left him with many cuts and bruises.
The coach urged him to come back to the team, and when he returned after two weeks of recovery, one of the varsity players deliberately stomped on his already injured hand. As his biographer puts it, “Robeson, enraged with pain, swept out his massive arms, brought down three men, grabbed the ball carrier, raised him over his head-‘I was going to smash him so hard to the ground I’d break him in two’ ” Robeson reported later. He was stopped by his coach and was never again roughed up by his teammates-only by opposing players who sought him out to hurt him.1
“I wish I could be sweet all the time,” Robeson once wrote, “but I get a little mad, man, get a little angry, and when I get angry I can be awful rough.”2
He was selected as an All American in football in 1917 and 1918, becoming both the first player from Rutgers and the second African American to receive the honor. He then earned a law degree from Columbia University while supporting himself by playing professional football on weekends. In 1923 he took a job at a New York law firm.
While in law school Robeson married fellow student Essie Goode who encouraged him to turn to acting as a career when racial hostility mounted against him at his law firm.
He left the firm after a few months and joined the Provincetown Players, a theater company associated with playwright Eugene O’Neill who soon gave him leading roles in New York productions of his plays ‘All God’s Chillun Got Wings’ and ‘The Emperor Jones’ which brought Robeson critical acclaim.
Despite having no formal training in singing, Robeson gave his first recital in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1925 and he soon established his reputation as an outstanding interpreter of African American spirituals during tours of the United States and Europe. In his role as Joe in the London production of the musical Show Boat his rendition of ‘Ol’ Man River’ showcased his superb bass-baritone voice. His international fame grew with his acclaimed performance in the title role of Shakespeare’s Othello.
He had a remarkable mind. He studied more than 20 languages and toured Europe, giving concerts to the working poor and developing ties with leftist political organizations and labor unions. Overwhelmed by his warm welcome when he traveled to the Soviet Union, Robeson became an enthusiastic advocate of socialism and supported anti-fascist movements, speaking out against Nazism and entertaining Loyalist troops in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. He also contributed to the World War II effort in the United States by performing patriotic songs on the radio and in concerts and participating in USO tours, which were organized to entertain troops. At the same time, he appeared in the New York production of ‘Othello’, which was the longest-running Shakespearean play in Broadway history up to that time.
Following World War II, and in spite of his efforts at supporting U.S. troops, he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities because of his leftist sympathies. He defied his questioners and was branded a Communist. He came under surveillance by the FBI and was denounced by the NAACP even as he continued to speak out against the United States government’s racist treatment of African Americans. In Peekskill New York he was hung in effigy by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Legion who also forced the cancellation of his concert there for minority trade unionists and pacifists.
He was barred from appearing in concert halls, and his records were removed from store shelves. After he refused to pledge that he was not a Communist, the United States Department of State suspended his passport in 1950. He performed in churches and for trade unions in defiance of the government’s censorship while the African American community and progressive organizations abroad campaigned on his behalf. He did not enhance his popularity in this country when, in 1952, he accepted the Stalin peace prize from the Soviet Union.
Robeson sued the state department and finally won the restoration of his passport in 1958, the year that saw the publication of his autobiography, Here I Stand. He left the United States to live and perform in Europe and the Soviet Union, where he was given a hero’s welcome.
He returned to the United States in poor health in 1963 and soon retired from public life. After his wife died two years later, Robeson went to Philadelphia to live in seclusion with his sister. More than two decades removed from his days of outspoken activism, he died there quietly on Jan. 23, 1976, at the age of 77.3
I have taken time to detail some of the life of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Paul Robeson because I believe they remind us of an important truth: because of the racial bigotry of people in high and low places in the United States, you and I have no way of knowing what this country and the world has lost and never known; what great novel has never been written, what community program to save lives has never been launched, what medical breakthrough never transpired, what peace never found, because of the relegation of people of color to poverty, inferior jobs and education, mob violence and lynching.
Certainly the pain and suffering they experienced as black Americans shaped their lives and their artistry, but who can say what great poems Paul Laurence Dunbar might have created had he lived without the anguish that being black brought him, or what might Paul Robeson have brought to the world in the last years of his life had he not been hounded by the House on Un-American Activities and the racist behavior of white antagonists in the United States.
The suffering and sacrifices of Paul Dunbar and Paul Robeson shaped their artistry while guiding us to a more inclusive society. Their experiences were background to their work and in part made it so very moving, but we must ask how many other stories remain untold because of the very conditions under which they lived?