"When He Is Least Himself": Dunbar and Double Consciousness in African American Poetry

Article excerpt

Like Paul Laurence Dunbar, and like many people who don't even consider themselves to be poets, I began writing poetry as a child. Although Dunbar was not a poet I tried to emulate when I wrote my first poems, and although he is not among my consciously chosen ancestor poets, he certainly contributed to my poetic inheritance. I recognize now that his poetry was an influence so pervasive in my upbringing that I never felt the need to claim him as my own.

I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas--one of the cities with a Dunbar High School, although neither I nor anyone in my family attended it. (1) My grandparents and my parents were schooled in Dunbar's poetry, a perennial favorite in the repertoire of black school and church programs. Dunbar's name and poetry would have been especially present in the lives of my Texas-born maternal grandfather, pastor of a Baptist church, and my Pennsylvania-born maternal grandmother, a daughter and wife of ministers who was active in the black women's club movement, as well as my Alabama-born paternal grandmother, an elementary school teacher, and my parents, who met as undergraduates at a historically black college in Alabama, where the artist David Driskell was one of their teachers and the poet Calvin Hernton was their classmate. (2) While reading a collection of my family's letters for a genealogy project, I noted my relatives' habit of using "Black Heritage" stamps, including the 1975 Paul Laurence Dunbar commemorative.

I may be in the last generation of African Americans who were routinely required to memorize and recite poetry as we were growing up. In my household, such recitations went along with piano and ballet lessons, visits to museums and art galleries, and attendance at the symphony and opera--all intended to broaden our horizons, to educate, uplift, and civilize us. Dunbar's "Little Brown Baby" and "When Malindy Sings" were among the popular poems frequently recited in performances at school, at church, and at various community events, along with Langston Hughes's "Dream Deferred" and "Mother to Son," Margaret Walker's "For My People," Gwendolyn Brooks's "We Real Cool" and her poem about Texas sailor Dorie Miller, a hero of World War II, and James Weldon Johnson's poems "The Creation" and "The Prodigal Son" from God's Trombones.

These poets--along with Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Mother Goose, and jump-rope rhymes learned on the playground--were in the background of my childhood when I wrote my first rhyming verses in the form of homemade and hand-drawn greeting cards. As a child dabbling in poetry, it never occurred to me to write poems in black vernacular, despite the prevalence of Dunbar's dialect poetry. The linguistic norm in my household might be described as "African American standard English" (if I had to label it), and it seemed to me that Dunbar's work, whether in "standard" or vernacular dialects, represented an archaic form of American English. The Dunbar poems I knew were a handful of favorites published in anthologies. As I became more interested in poetry, Dunbar receded into the background, along with other staples of my childhood. I do not recall ever seeing a complete collection of his work until much later, when I discovered that he had a much greater range than the poems I recalled from church and school recitals. (3)

Dunbar's troubled life embodies, and his poetry of segregated linguistic domains articulates, a state that W. E. B. Du Bois called "double consciousness," the historical self-awareness of African Americans struggling to overcome a legacy of slavery and discrimination while claiming the rights, responsibilities, and benefits of freedom. Dunbar's knowledge of slavery was thankfully secondhand. He wrote about slave life from the vantage point of freedom, as the offspring of former slaves; and for the most part, his focus was not on the oppression of the slave system, but rather on the humanity of the slave and the cultures of the African American folk community. …