“New” Dunbar Poems!

With the recent opening of Controversy 2: Pieces We Don’t Talk About on February 29th, we’d like to let you know about some of our digital collections here on Ohio Memory that complement pieces in the exhibit.

One of the Controversy 2 items is a draft of a poem entitled “Scamp,” written by Ohio poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (seen above with an unidentified friend, and at right) and first published in his 1901 volume of poetry “Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow.” Dunbar, who was born in Dayton in 1872, is known as one of the first African Americans to gain widespread recognition in the literary world. The “controversial” aspect of this poem is that it was written in southern African American dialect–a literary practice which Dunbar made use of in many of his works. As an example of how Dunbar uses phonetic spelling to capture the dialect in which he writes, the first line of the poem reads, “Aint it nice to have a mammy/ W’en you kin’ o’ tiahed out.” Some critics argue that this stereotyped sort of speech perpetuates negative views of African Americans. However, it can also be said that because of Dunbar’s personal history as the son of two former slaves, he used this voice in an authentic way to memorialize, rather than ignore or trivialize, the African American experience of his family and ancestors.


Dunbar’s poem “Philosophy,” published in 1903.

We hope that visitors to Controversy 2 will be inspired to learn more about the topics which the exhibit explores, and that’s where Ohio Memory comes in! We’ve recently added over 50 new documents from the Dunbar manuscript collection, comprised of drafts of both published and unpublished poems. You can see early manuscripts of well-known poems like “Life,” which was published in the same volume as “Scamp,” as well as handwritten copies of poems that never made it into print, like “In the depths.” The selection also includes other poems written in dialect, including “Hope” and “I do’ want no big position,” plus a number of Dunbar’s standard-English poems whose beauty rivals works by other poets of the time.

We invite you to explore these items to learn more about Dunbar and the incredible work he did as a literary figure. You can also take a look at other Paul Laurence Dunbar items in Ohio Memory–this collection includes photographs, more poems, concert broadsides, sheet music and more. And don’t forget to come in to the Ohio History Center to experience all of the Controversy 2 objects for yourself!

Thanks to Lily Birkhimer, Digital Projects Coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, for this week’s post!

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