While schools, community centers, literary prizes, and other institutions carry Paul Laurence Dunbar’s name, his reputation has suffered from critics labeling him an accomidationist who rather than opposing white-supremacy and racism reinforced it with stereotypical images of African American characters who spoke in dialect and appeared to long for a bygone past in the Old South. Critics such as Charles T. Davis and Sterling A. Brown noted a sign of literary genius in Dunbar; however, they also saw Dunbar “misreading” African American history and culture. Dunbar came of age and wrote during the period of regionalism and the plantation tradition, a literary genre deployed by authors such as Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris that reinforced racist stereotypes of African Americans.
Critics like Davis and Brown perceived Dunbar as placating, and not transcending, the plantation tradition, thus buttressing up the ideas purported by authors such as Harris and Page. On the surface, dialect poems such as “The Banjo Song” and “The Deserted Plantation” are pieces that, as Joanna Brookes notes, “must have appealed to white Southerners who wanted to see blacks back in their place.” The poems do not lament the passing of the genteel, Old South; rather, the emancipated slaves encompass “an Afrocentric environment and enjoy each other’s company,” as Brooks continues, instead of becoming stereotypical representations of the plantation tradition.
A poet, essayist, novelist, short story writer, songwriter, playwright, and literary innovator Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872 to former slaves Joshua and Matilda from Kentucky. Joshua served in the Massachusetts 55th Regiment during the Civil War, and Matilda instilled within her son a love of literature and taught him how to read. Both of his parents told him about their lives and the lives of others, teaching him about the oral tradition and the African American experience. During his time at Dayton’s Central High School, Dunbar wrote for school’s newspaper, its humor magazine, and served as the class poet.
As a senior in 1890, Dunbar published the Dayton Tattler, a weekly, African American newspaper, with the assistance of Orville Wright. The paper only lasted for three issues because of a lack of subscriptions, but the contents of the Dayton Tattler highlight some of Dunbar’s earliest work in the form of his unfinished play The Gambler’s Wife and a poem modeled after the dialect poetry of the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Reilly entitled “Lager Beer.” Amongst the literary pieces, Dunbar’s “Saluatory” for the paper calls upon readers to, “for the sake of Heaven and the race, stop saying, and go to doing.” Instead of accommodating, Dunbar calls for action, and his work heeds that call. At times, Dunbar confronts racial injustice head on as he does in his newspaper writings such as his 1903 New York Times piece “The Fourth of July and Race Outrages” which echoes Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, commenting on the peonage system in the South and lynchings across the nation. At other times, Dunbar subverts popular beliefs about the Old South and African Americans in poems like “The Deserted Plantation.”
Partly due to the literary landscape of the period, a milieu that featured authors such as Page, Harris, Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, and other regionalists, Dunbar worked within the period in which he lived, writing dialect poems and constructing characters that appeared similar to the ones those authors working in the plantation tradition deployed. However, Dunbar’s subversion works to undercut the veneer of adhering to the plantation tradition by portraying “the mask that grins and lies” while all the while destabilizing that perception by presenting his African American characters with humanity and life. Reviewing Dunbar’s second collection of poetry, Majors and Minors (1895), William Dean Howells noted Dunbar’s literary talent, but Howells also silenced African American writers who were either contemporaries with Dunbar or who came before him. Howells calls Dunbar “the first man of his color to study his race objectively, to analyze it to himself, and then to represent it in art as he felt it and found it to be.” This is the space that Dunbar entered into, a space that did not recognize or acknowledge an African American literary tradition and a space that portrayed African Americans as caricatures and stereotypes. Dunbar knew about the history of the African American press and papers such as Freedoms Journal, Ram’s Horn, and Douglass’ The North Star; he knew about the work Albery Allson Whitman, James D. Carruthers, George Martin McClellan, and his own wife Alice Dunbar-Nelson; he knew about the struggles regarding education, politics, and economics through his relationships with African American leaders such as Booker T. Washington; he knew about the struggles of slavery and life on the plantation from his parents who were enslaved in Kentucky.
The works collected here highlight the dual nature of Dunbar’s writing, existing within a literary tradition of caricatures while subverting those stereotypes from within. We need to think about Dunbar in relation to an African American literary tradition that includes authors such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Frederick Douglass, David Walker, Charles Chesnutt, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson. We also need to consider him within the context of poets such as John Greenleaf Whitter, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Whitcomb Riley; and in connection to regional authors who tackle “the problem of the color line” in America such as Mark Twain, George Washington Cable, and Kate Chopin. Taken together, the short stories and poems presented here show Dunbar working within the literary confines of his period and also confronting, through his fiction, those who heaped praise upon his dialect poems while devaluing his standard verse.
Booker T. Washington called Dunbar “the poet laureate of the Negro race,” and nearly a century later, poet Nikki Giovanni provided a description of Dunbar’s dual position: “Every artist, should he create long enough, will come full cycle again and again. The artist is a political animal as well as a sensitive being. Like any person the artist is a contradiction. Dunbar will speak of the good ole days, then say ‘We Wear the Mask.’ The message is clear and available to us if we invest in Dunbar the integrity we hope others will give us.”
For more on Paul Laurence Dunbar, see Joanna Braxton’s The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1993); Herbert Woodward Martin and Ronald Primeau’s In His Own Voice: The Dramatic and Other Uncollected Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar (2002); Herbert Woodward Martin, Gene Andrew Jarrett, and Ronald Primeau’s The Collected Novels of Paul Laurence Dunbar (2009); Willie J. Harrell, Jr.’s edited collection We Wear the Mask: Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Politics of Representative Reality (2010)