Famous Black Poets Dunbar and Angelou have a Connection

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Contemporaries

An article in USA Today listed ten great places to visit that are well versed in poets (April 13, 2007). One of those is the Paul Laurence Dunbar historical home and visitor center in Dayton, Ohio.

Dunbar, son of freed slaves, was a good friend of the Wright brothers and a high school classmate of Orville. Dunbar achieved fame and fortune in his short life and became one of the first African-American poets. He died at the young age of 33 of tuberculosis.

The famous contemporary black poet, Maya Angelou took the last line of Dunbar’s poem, Sympathy, for the title of her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The book is a chronicle of her life up to the age of sixteen and was published in 1970. It was a great critical and commercial success.

Here is Dunbar’s poem:

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 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!

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