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February 15, 2006

Paul Laurence Dunbar Centennial Conference to be held March 10-11

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born the child of former slaves in 1872 and soared above the barriers of his time to become both the first African American to make a living as a writer and one of the best-known American authors in his lifetime.

Both prolific and influential during his short life—Dunbar died in 1906 of tuberculosis at the age of 33—the Dayton, Ohio-born writer produced poetry, fiction, drama, journalism and essays and inspired authors ranging from poets of the Harlem Renaissance to Maya Angelou. Dunbar's books sold thousands of copies, and he was highly sought-after among white audiences as well as blacks for readings and performances of his poetry.

But as singular as Dunbar's achievements were, his work has received much less scholarly attention than it deserves, said English Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the director of the American Studies Program and a co-organizer of a conference that seeks to redress the neglect. "The Paul Laurence Dunbar Centennial Conference," to be held on campus March 10-11, will serve not only as a centenary celebration of the author and his work but as the first significant reevaluation of the writer to be undertaken in more than three decades, Fishkin said. Dunbar "matters so much and has gotten so little attention," she said.

Dunbar was "enormously talented" and remains among the nation's most remarkable writers in terms of versatility and popular respect, said Fishkin, co-editor of a newly published edition of Dunbar's collected writing, The Sport of the Gods and Other Essential Writings (Modern Library, 2005). "He offers a window on his own time and our time in really fascinating ways."

The two-day event will focus on the full range of Dunbar's literary productions and place the author in the context of the history that informed his work, with panel presentations by more than three dozen U.S. and international scholars working in disciplines including English, history, American studies and African American studies. The conference will address topics including new perspectives on Dunbar's use of dialect, his engagement with the racial politics of his era, the role of photography in his work and his relationship to his literary predecessors, contemporaries and successors.

The conference has been organized by Fishkin; Gavin Jones, associate professor of English; and Arnold Rampersad, the Sara Hart Kimball Professor in the Humanities and senior associate dean for the humanities. Meta DuEwa Jones, an assistant professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, and Richard Yarborough, an associate professor of English at UCLA, also are organizers. (Jones and Yarborough both earned doctorates at Stanford.)

Among the presenters will be prize-winning poets Elizabeth Alexander and Harryette Mullen (who teach at Yale and UCLA, respectively), and the award-winning novelist David Bradley (who is on the faculty at the University of Oregon). Other presenters will include noted African American literature scholars Joanne Braxton, the Cummings Professor of American Studies and English at the College of William and Mary; Deborah McDowell, professor of English at the University of Virginia; Aldon Lynn Nielsen, professor of American literature at Penn State University; and Kenneth Warren, professor of English at the University of Chicago. Scholars from Durham (U.K.), Montreal and Zurich also will present their research.

The conference runs from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 10-11. Sessions will be held in Tresidder Union on March 10 and at the Stanford Humanities Center on March 11. At 5:30 on March 10, Dunbar's Children, a performance by the Stanford Committee on Black Performing Arts directed by Harry Elam, the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities, will take place at the Stanford Humanities Center. "Majors and Minors: The Multivalent Paul Laurence Dunbar," an exhibit of primary materials from Stanford library collections, will be on display in the lobby of Green Library during the conference.

The conference is free and open to the public, but registration is requested by March 2. A full conference schedule and registration information are available online at

The conference is sponsored by the American Studies Program. Co-sponsors include the Office of the President, Office of the Dean of Humanities and Sciences, Department of English, Department of History, Continuing Studies, Program in African and African American Studies, Stanford Humanities Center and the Central Region Humanities Center at Ohio University.



Barbara Palmer, News Service: (650) 724-6184,


Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Department of English:

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