Paul Laurence Dunbar is widely recognized as America’s first great Black poet. Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872 to formerly enslaved parents, his mother hoped he would become a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church. But Dunbar had other ideas.
He wrote his first poem at the age of six, and he was a friend and classmate of Orville Wright. In fact, when he launched The Tattler, Dayton’s first weekly African-American newspaper, the Wright Brothers published it. After graduation, Dunbar took a job as an elevator operator, but continued writing poetry in his spare time. He ultimately published a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, four novels, lyrics for a musical, and a play.
Dunbar has the distinction of being the first Black poet to achieve national recognition. Frederick Douglass called him, “one of the sweetest songsters his race has produced,” and his friend, the writer James Weldon Johnson, said:
“Paul Laurence Dunbar … was the first to rise to a height from which he could take a perspective view of his own race. He was the first to see objectively its humor, its superstitions, its short-comings; the first to feel sympathetically its heart-wounds, its yearnings, its aspirations, and to voice them all in a purely literary form.”
For today’s inspiration, we’re looking at the poem that gave poet Maya Angelou the title for her autobiography. It’s a poem titled, “Sympathy.”
By Paul Laurence Dunbar
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!
FOR ADDITIONAL READING: See The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Some more inspirational nuggets for today:
- On this day in 1853, John Wilkes Booth was baptized at St. Timothy’s Protestant Episcopal Church in Catonsville, Maryland. Born to a Shakespearean actor and his mistress, Booth attended a Quaker boarding school. While he was there, he met a gypsy palm reader who told him he would have a short life and was doomed to meet a bad end. Booth’s sister said he frequently talked about the palm reader’s prediction with friends and family members, and he was known to ruminate on it when he experienced bouts of melancholy.
- And on this day in 1986, the Rock and Roll Hall Fame welcomed its first class. Inductees included the rock legends Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Elvis Pressley and Jerry Lee Lewis. When he was a teenager, Lewis attended the Southwest Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas. He was thrown out for playing a boogie-woogie version of a hymn. But it set the stage for a conflict that’s followed him his entire life – the conflict between his faith and his love of rock-and-roll music. “If I’m going to hell,” Lewis says, “I’m going there playing the piano.”
- Today also marks the death of the beer maker, Arthur Guinness. In 1759, Guinness signed a 9,000-year lease on a brewery at St. James Gate in Dublin for a whopping 45 pounds a year. He was a devout Christian and he started brewing beer as a public service, based on his belief that beer gave the public a safer and less potent alternative to hard liquor. At the time of his death in 1803, his brewery produced an impressive 20,000 barrels a year. Today, the Guinness brewery at St. James Gate produces more than a million barrels a year and is the largest brewer of stout in the world, making Guinness one of the most successful alcohol brands in history.
So, now you have an excuse to work a beer into your spiritual practice today. I hope you do. Anyway, that’s today’s Spiritual Almanac.
Be kind, take good care and we’ll see you soon.