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Paul Laurence Dunbar's Legacy of Language

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Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was the first African American poet to make his living from his writing.

Dunbar was well known during his lifetime for the poetry he wrote in black dialect. But he came to despise the focus on those poems while his other work -- which included standard English poems, his essays and plays -- went almost ignored.

As the son of two former slaves, Dunbar grew up hearing the manner of speech from which many African Americans wanted to distance themselves. Dunbar, however, loved it. He continued to employ it in tandem with his standard English works, often hiding a second meaning in the poems.

Dunbar spent most of his life in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. When he died of tuberculosis at age 33, he was a popular writer with both whites and blacks. His work continued to inspire future generations of poets such as Langston Hughes. Next month, Stanford University hosts a three-day conference on Dunbar.

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Aileen LeBlanc