Dunbar became the first African-American poet to earn national distinction and acceptance. The New York Times called him "a true singer of the people — white or black." Frederick Douglass once referred to Dunbar as, "one of the sweetest songsters his race has produced and a man of whom [he hoped] great things."
His friend and writer James Weldon Johnson highly praised Dunbar, writing in The Book of American Negro Poetry:
"Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out as the first poet from the Negro race in the United States to show a combined mastery over poetic material and poetic technique, to reveal innate literary distinction in what he wrote, and to maintain a high level of performance. He was the first to rise to a height from which he could take a perspective view of his own race. He was the first to see objectively its humor, its superstitions, its short-comings; the first to feel sympathetically its heart-wounds, its yearnings, its aspirations, and to voice them all in a purely literary form."
This collection was published in 1931, following the Harlem Renaissance, which led to a great outpouring of literary and artistic works by blacks. They explored new topics, expressing ideas about urban life and migration to the North. In his writing, Johnson also criticized Dunbar for his dialect poems, saying they had fostered stereotypes of blacks as comical or pathetic, and reinforced the restriction that blacks write only about scenes of antebellum plantation life in the South.
Dunbar has continued to influence other writers, lyricists, and composers. Composer William Grant Still used excerpts from four dialect poems by Dunbar as epigraphs for the four movements of his Symphony No. 1 in A-flat, "Afro-American" (1930). The next year it was premiered, the first symphony by an African American to be performed by a major orchestra for a US audience.
Maya Angelou titled her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), from a line in Dunbar's poem "Sympathy," at the suggestion of jazz musician and activist Abbey Lincoln. Angelou said that Dunbar's works had inspired her "writing ambition." She returns to his symbol of a caged bird as a chained slave in much of her writings.