An 1895 memorial poem by African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was an outstanding African American poet, prose writer, and literary figure. For further see Peter Revell, Paul Laurence Dunbar (New York: Twayne, 1979) and Eleanor Alexander, Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore (New York: NYU Press, 2001).
Although of an entirely different generation, Paul Laurence Dunbar had a close personal acquaintance with Frederick Douglass since in 1893 Douglass appointed twenty-one year-old Dunbar as his clerk to help manage the Haitian exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. At this point Douglass represented one of the few surviving figures from the historic antebellum abolitionist movement and a living link to the black struggle against slavery.
Dunbar wrote “Frederick Douglass” upon receiving news of Douglass’ death on February 20, 1895, staying awake all night in order to do so. One of several poems Dunbar wrote on Douglass, this is the longest and best-known.
In its first stanza the memorial poem begins by suggesting that the news of Douglass’ passing has caused a pause in the rushing contests of modernity, that a mythically construed ‘Ethiopia’ hushes to lament the death of one of her leading children. Ethiopia is a race-mother and the slave he championed (line 9) and comforted (10-12) in times of dire affliction. Douglass comforted, Dunbar suggests, by exhibiting fearlessness in his attacks upon slavery (13-18). “He was no soft-tongued apologist” (19), Dunbar writes, in what might be construed as indirect criticism of accommodationism, the political belief that African Americans needed perforce to accommodate white supremacism in the United States. Rather, for Dunbar, Douglass represented political intransigence in the rhetorical battles for African American freedom, one who “answered thunder with his thunder, back” (30). That same force with which Douglass answered slavery served the public following the defeat of slavery, as Dunbar wrote: “The place and cause that first aroused his might, / Still proved its pow’r until his latest day.” (43-44) The poem concludes by invoking Douglass’s insurrectionary inspiration – “the kindling spirit of his battle cry” (52) – as a spirit required by African Americans at the end of the nineteenth century.
Source: Dunbar, “Frederick Douglass” (1895), in In Memoriam: Frederick Douglass, ed. Helen Douglass (Philadelphia: J.C. Yorston & Co., 1897) 168-169.