The dedication of a Vocational School may seem like an unusual occasion to discuss poetry. Poetry, to most of us here tonight, is probably the most useless commodity in the world today. No one wants to buy it. No one can make a living composing it. Practically no one reads it.
Yet Paul Laurence Dunbar, for whom this magnificent structure is named, was a poet. He was one of those strange men useless perhaps to many, but a glory to the Negro people, and a credit to our country and to our civilization.
Poetry is one of the highest of the human arts, one of the great disciplines of antiquity, and one of the greatest glories of the English speaking people. To me it is a significant fact, therefore, a fact portentous of great good,- that in Chicago, industrial capital of the greatest industrial nation in world history, we should be dedicating our newest and best vocational school to the memory of a poet.
In 1895, William Dean Howells, the great literary critic, commented upon Dunbar’s poetry in these words: -
“...I permitted myself the imaginative prophecy that the hostilities and prejudices, which had so long constrained his race, were destined to ‘vanish in the arts’; that these were to be the final proof that God had made of one blood all nations of men. I accepted them [Dunbar’s poems] as an evidence of the essential unity of the human race, which does not think or feel black in one and white in another, but humanly in all."
William Dean Howells’ words predicting that the hostilities and prejudices against the Negro were destined to “vanish into arts” has haunted my mind, and tonight impels me to share with you my conviction that Howells was right, – that Dunbar Vocational School, large and expensive though it may seem to be, is right — that Chicago is right in naming this school for a poet: and that our program of education in our vocational high schools is right.
I say this with conviction because Dunbar Vocational School is not a factory, producing specialized workers for a hungry industrial machine. This is not an institution which seeks to give a man a trade and then imprisons him within it. That was the attitude in the old days, when knowledge of the liberal art was restricted to the man who was liberated, to the free man --- and the "servile arts" were the destiny of all others, the lower classes, if you will, or manual laborers, if you prefer.
The coalminer, who saw only the darkness of his pits, found his children following him into the same profession. The textile worker at his loom, or the merchant man at sea, passed on to his children the trade he knew because it was all he knew.
And in most of the world today, we see this age-old pattern still in operation. In India the caste system imprisons millions within their occupational and cultural group; in Russia, no one may change his job or status without Government approval; in China, men are shackled to their jobs with no hope of liberation.
Two great forces have worked for two thousand years to change this ancient pattern:- religion and education, --- especially liberal education, so named because it liberated man, opened his mind to a full view of society, and gave him hope and light to guide his children into a full participation in the life of mankind.
Dunbar Vocational School provides every student with a firm foundation in these liberal arts --- the arts, skills and interests of free men. Here, men and women, learn to work at vocations and trades; but they are taught, too, that there is a legitimate connection between the fine arts and the useful arts. In this auditorium where we are gathered this evening, your minds are opened to the excitement of the drama. In the library upstairs, and in their English courses, they have a front row seat for the greatest pageant in the world --- a spectacle far surpassing any parade for the coronation of a king, or inauguration of a president.
English literature, with its galaxy of stars and immemorial moments, passes before their eyes, and hopefully, into their hearts. For the first time in their lives, many students here at Dunbar will meet some of the most exciting people and things in the world:–
Hamlet, speaking to his father's ghost. Shelley's Skylark, who "At Heaven's Gate Does Sing." Keats' Grecian vase, which promises us that "Truth is Beauty, and Beauty is. Truth." The great lovers – Romeo and Juliet, and those lovers in the real world, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, "How do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Ways..."think of the laughter of Mark Twain; the adventures of "Treasure Island"; the almost-clairvoyant logic of Sherlock Holmes; the tenderness of Emily Dickinson's poetry; the poignant simplicity of the Shropshire Lad sighing, "When I was one and twenty, ... I heard a wise man say, give crowns and pounds and guineas, but not your heart away..."
In music classes, students here at Dunbar learn the "Art of Listening," whether to jazz or symphony; in art, their eyes feast on the colors of Matisse, and the depths of Rembrandt.
Yes, Dunbar's students are having their ears, eyes, and minds opened, while their hands are trained to create the useful products of contemporary industrial society.
This "state of affairs" is exactly as it should be. It is no accident that many of the most beautiful things in America are also the most useful. The Golden Gate bridge, the jet aeroplane, the skyscraper office building. It is no accident either that Chicago was the scene in the United States of the wedding of the artistic with the useful.
In Chicago, Louis Sullivan first gave artistic expression to the utilitarian skyscraper. Here in our city he and David Adler first explored the skyscraper's true nature in buildings constructed to adorn our boulevards.
Mies Van Der Rohe, who lives here, is now revolutionizing the skyline of America with new buildings which marry the useful to the beautiful more strictly than ever before.
In Chicago, Frank Loyd Wright changed the course of architecture world wide.
Sinclair Lewis, James T. Farrell, John Dos Passos and Theodore Dreiser began the movement in American literature which awakened appreciation for the beauty of plain, idiomatic words.
These men and others like them are responsible in part for our civic awareness today. They have opened our eyes and hearts to the realization that all our surroundings should exemplify the good life, the freedom of liberated men.
Today we see this new type of "Freedom of the City" becoming specific and tangible in our civic determination that there shall be no more "Trumbull Parks." We see it in Mayor Daley's Clean-up Campaign, which is encouraging a proper respect for our homes and neighborhoods. We see it in our new street lights, in the new play yards around our schools.
Yes, we see it in our new school buildings, too, situated, as they should be, in the midst of spacious parks, in surroundings designed to lift the spirit of man while his mind is trained in the ABC's of civilization.
All these things are indications of our desire to clean, brighten, open and lighten our physical surroundings. That desire, my friends, can come only from minds and hearts which have themselves been cleaned, brightened, opened and lightened by the liberating arts of education.
Tonight as we dedicate Dunbar Vocational School, let us remember that everyone does not have to be an intellectual, Eggheads and bookish people are not the only ones deserving acclaim, even in our schools. It is not too much to say that anything done well is better than some spectacular project done badly.
There is real labor in all genuine work --- manual or intellectual. There are as many "slaves" in white collars, as there are with dirty hands.
Let us remember, too, that the most beautiful objects in any culture are the useful ones, created by human labor aid intended for the market place or for public use and pleasure.
Let us agree that the theory of art for art's sake died with Oscar Wilde, and that true art must be connected to real life and its problems.
Let us take heart from these words written by Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose memory we honor tonight, and let us apply them to ourselves. From: "The Poet and His Song"
“...My days are never days of ease;
I till my ground and prune my trees.
When ripened gold is all the plain,
I put my sickle to the grain.
I labor hard, and toil and sweat,
While others dream within the dell;
But even while my brow is wet,
I sing my song, and all is well.
Sometimes the sun, unkindly hot,
My garden makes a desert spot;
Sometimes a blight upon the tree
Takes all my fruit away from me;
And then with throes of bitter pain
Rebellious passions rise and swell;
But - Life is more than fruit or grain,
And so I sing, and all is well."