Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Credit to His Race?

Article excerpt

Over the course of the twentieth century, Paul Laurence Dunbar's reputation shifted between that of a "race man" and that of an embarrassment, before progressing to that of a forerunner and trickster, who possessed the dual, if contradictory, qualities of transgression and respectability. Much of this volatility originates in Dunbar's odd dual status as a writer and a symbol, in both popular representation and criticism.

Although Dunbar's works were known among both whites and African Americans while he was alive, his fame peaked after his early death in 1906. In the three decades that followed, many performers, white and Black, enacted public recitations or sang musical settings of his dialect poetry. There was a powerful contrast, however, between the ways his work was represented in the white and Black worlds. (1)

White drawing-room performers such as Kitty Cheatham and Clara Alexander made their careers reciting Dunbar's dialect poems, especially the perennial favorite "When Malindy Sings." During these society events, Dunbar's works would be paired with (non-dialect) poems by white authors or with "Negro" spirituals and plantation songs. (2) The fact of performance and the appropriated folk context is an ironic reflection of Dunbar's own self-presentation to the white world during his lifetime. Although Dunbar also performed standard English poems, his acting out of the dialect poems, his songs, and his work on such "coon" musicals as Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cakewalk, created in collaboration with Will Marion Cook, was an essential part of his popularity and acceptance among whites, even as they laid the basis for Black discomfort with--even condemnation of--both the performer and his productions. Their image of Dunbar as presenting a distorted or inauthentic face to white audiences was no doubt heightened by the curious fact that, within white circles, he was most often billed as Paul Lawrence Dunbar--Dunbar himself had wondered aloud why educated people could not learn to spell his name correctly (Brascher 6).

After Dunbar's death, his poetry also became a central feature of Black community life, due in part to the public reading tours and other promotional activities of his ex-wife and "official widow," Alice Dunbar-Nelson. As columnist Sylvestre Watkins recalled in 1947, "When I was a boy, every church social program included a reading from Dunbar--"When the co'npone is Hot," "L'il Brown Baby," "When Malindy Sings", "L'il Gal," and many others. Everyone looked forward to this part of the program" (H10). Interviewed in his sixties, Chester Himes said that when he was growing up, "Every black schoolchild knew the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, which was recited in school" (Bandler BW2). The young A. Philip Randolph put himself through college by giving public readings in Black churches of Shakespeare, the Bible, and Dunbar's poetry (Anderson 47).

Poets as diverse as Pauli Murray and Langston Hughes later spoke of how they had been brought up on Dunbar's works. Indeed, when a Black Chicago girl in the 1920s wrote down her first verses, her proud mama exclaimed that little Gwendolyn Brooks might grow up to be "the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar!" (Brooks 56). Much later, Michel Fabre noted that the content of Richard Wright's 1941 folk history Twelve Million Black Voices was an evocation of Dunbar's Lyrics of Lowly Life (190). (3)

A number of African American musicians also claimed Dunbar as an inspiration. Paul Robeson commissioned and performed musical settings of "L'il Gal" and "Down Lover's Lane" ("Operetta on Program" 16). William Grant Still cited verses from Dunbar in the score of his 1935 Afro-American Symphony as epigraphs for the four movements. In the 1940s Thomas Kerr composed a song cycle of Dunbar's verse, and Janice Brown Johnson wrote orchestral settings of his poem "The Pool." (4)

Yet Dunbar's symbolic presence as an exemplar of Black achievement--the first Black professional writer-- swiftly eclipsed what he actually wrote. …