Suggestions for Educators: Dunbar in Grades 5 through 12
"We Wear the Mask"
Former slaves and other African-Americans in Dunbar's time were employed in jobs such as servants and railway porters in which they "put on a face" of seeming happiness, "the mask that grins and lies." Ask students to consider why. Ask them if they have ever "worn a mask" for other people such as parents or peers.
"He Had His Dream"
Ask students if they've known someone like the speaker describes. What is the speaker's attitude towards him? Do they have a dream? Do they see a similarity between Dunbar's dream and that of a famous American who lived several years later?
"When Dey 'Listed Colored Soldiers"
The poem describes the loss of a loved one during war. It touches feelings of sadness, sacrifice and pride. Have students write a historical fiction piece based on this soldier or the speaker. Invite veterans or relatives of veterans to come and speak to the class. Invite refugees from countries torn by civil war in our times.
"Negro Love Song"
Have students write poems about their own dating experiences. Discuss dialect by asking how this poem (as well as "When Dey 'Listed Colored Soldiers" and "Little Brown Baby") would be different if written in standard, report-writing English. Suggest they write one poem in standard English, one using the language they use among themselves. Discuss what makes them different, the advantages and disadvantages of each.
"The Poet and His Song"
Ask why the poet believes poetry is important. Are there other reasons to write poetry? What does it mean that "life is more than fruit or grain"? Dunbar lived in the middle of a 20th-century city - why does he write about cows and trees and plains?
"Ode to Ethiopia"
In Dunbar's time, although much of Africa was under the control of European imperialist powers, Ethiopia flourished as an independent state. Students could research relationships between imperialistic countries and colonies: Great Britain and the American colonies, Spain and Portugal and Central and South America, England and Ireland, Russia and the other countries formerly part of the Soviet Union. In such relationships, what were the roles of politics, economics, national identity and ethnic pride.
"Little Brown Baby"
Ask students to trace how our perception of the speaker changes as the poem progresses. Ask them to compare the speaker in this poem with the speaker in "He Had His Dream." What are the speakers' attitudes toward life? Are they pessimistic or optimistic?