Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio, of parents who were former slaves. At 13, he began reciting original poetry at church; at Central High School, where he was the only black student in his class, he was a member of a literary society and an editor of the High School Times. Unable to finance a college education, Dunbar worked as an elevator operator until 1893, when he found a job as the assistant to Frederick Douglass, who was supervising the Haiti exhibit at the world exposition in Chicago.
In that same year, Dunbar privately published his first volume of poetry, Oak and Ivy, followed by Majors and Minors in 1895. Dunbar marketed his books independently by reading and selling his poetry. After receiving a favorable review in Harper's by William Dean Howells, a prominent Caucasian writer, Dunbar gained the larger audience he desired. The audience was primarily made up of white readers familiar with the "Negro dialect" of literature depicting blacks through exaggerated, comical images. Although some of the Dunbar's work follows the dialect form, as Richard Barksdale and Kenneth Kinnamon suggest, "the general tone of ... [Dunbar's] dialect poetry is quite different ... These poems radiate a warm humanity ..."
Lyrics of Lowly Life, a selection of poems from his two earlier volumes, brought Dunbar national and international recognition and was praised for its dialect style. Yet Dunbar still hungered for an enthusiastic acceptance of his non-dialect prose. Ironically, Dunbar wrote most of his poetry in standard English, using conventional symbols, rhythms, and a rhyming patterns, but the popularity of his dialect poetry overwhelmed the appreciation of his skill with mainstream language and forms.
Dunbar avoided direct attacks on American racism in his writing, which some critics have interpreted as a thematic weakness in his body of work. However, certain poems and stories serve as emblems of Dunbar's racial consciousness and pride, such as poems "We Wear the Mask" and "Sympathy," which appear below.
Moving from poetry to fiction, Dunbar published several short story collections, including:
- Folks from the Dixie
- The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories
- In Old Plantation Days
- The Heart of Happy Hollow