Happy Birthday Paul Laurence Dunbar

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A prolific writer during his too short 33 years Dunbar was born June 27th, 1872.  He was a child of the hope that characterised the reconstruction period in the US following the Civil War.  He was an intellectual and suspicious of the “negro dialect” writing that was so popular in his day.  He preferred to express himself in proper English rather than in Uncle Tom pickaninny cant.

His influence was enormous and he inspired some of the greatest writers of the Harlem Renaissance.  More recently Maya Angelou acknowledged his influence in the title of her poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” from a line in Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”.

We Wear the Mask: by Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
this debt we pay to human guile;
with torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
and mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise,
in counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
we wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
to thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
beneath our feet, and long the mile;
but let the world dream otherwise,
we wear the mask!

Hectic Blood

Dancer

Around rolls the year and Countee Cullen lights another candle on his birthday cake before releasing a primal yawp and leaping about with hectic blood.

Fruit of the Flower; by Countee Cullen

My father is a quiet man
with sober, steady ways;
for simile, a folded fan;
his nights are like his days.
My mother’s life is puritan,
no hint of cavalier,
a pool so calm you’re sure it can
have little depth to fear.

And yet my father’s eyes can boast
how full his life has been;
there haunts them yet the languid ghost
of some still sacred sin.

And though my mother chants of God,
and of the mystic river,
I’ve seen a bit of checkered sod
set all her flesh aquiver.

Why should he deem it pure mischance
a son of his is fain
to do a naked tribal dance
each time he hears the rain?

Why should she think it devil’s art
that all my songs should be
of love and lovers, broken heart,
and wild sweet agony?

Who plants a seed begets a bud,
extract of that same root;
why marvel at the hectic blood
that flushes this wild fruit?

Happy Birthday Countee Cullen

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African Americans had a brief flowering of liberty and creativity in the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War in the USA.  This was brought to a sharp end by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the passing of the Jim Crow laws.

In the 1920’s there was a cultural, social and literary flowering of creativity by the grandchildren of the reconstruction era negroes.  Known at the time as the New Negro Movement it is now called the Harlem Renaissance.  Countee Cullen was one of the leading lights of this movement.

This poem is interesing to me because it is so evocative of the WB Yeats “He Wishes for the cloths of heaven”.  While Yeats wrote of the lovers angst Cullen’s poem speaks of discrimination and racism.  Here we are today 100 years on from the Harlem Renaissance and it seems that the struggle for equality for African Americans has seen little advance.  Despite the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X the USA still appears to be dangerous ground on which to be a black person.

For a Poet; by Countee Cullen

I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold;
Where long will cling the lips of the moth,
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth;
I hide no hate; I am not even wroth
Who found the earth’s breath so keen and cold;
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold.