Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Marshall Circle: Racial Representation from Blackface to Black Naturalism

Article excerpt

No period in black American cultural history was more mercurial, and at the present time, no period is less understood than the "nadir," which stretched from the end of Reconstruction to World War I. (1) With the exception of touring spiritual choirs celebrated for their natural power, black artists were largely invisible to white Americans until the mid-1890s when ragtime exploded, minstrel stars sold millions of copies of their sheet music, and Paul Laurence Dunbar rose to national prominence. (2) A pioneering novelist who was hailed as the "black poet laureate" and "prince of 'coon' song writers" ("Paul Laurence Dunbar" n. pag.), Dunbar represents perhaps the best starting place for a reassessment of the black nadir. Using Dunbar's varied, often misunderstood career as a lens, this essay studies the fraught relationship between turn-of-the-century black art and racism.

Dunbar was enmeshed like no other nadir-period artist in the politics and possibilities of racial representation. Despite burgeoning scholarly interest in black minstrelsy, the standard history of Dunbar's songwriting career is plagued with errors and misconceptions. (3) This is unfortunate because the full complexity of Dunbar's dynamic approach to racial representation is only accessible through a careful excavation of his work with Bert Williams, George Walker, and the other members of what I call the Marshall Circle--the talented group of African American and African Caribbean performers who gathered at the black-owned Marshall Hotel. (4) By exploring the continuities and discontinuities of Dunbar's racial representations, I hope to provide insight into the racist forms that turn-of-the-century black artists inherited, the new modes of cultural expression that they struggled to produce, and the political tensions between the two.

My analysis begins with a simple claim: Racist expectations did not trap Dunbar; rather, they prompted his remarkable movement across genres and forms. By working within and against conventional black representations in poetry and song, Dunbar reached diverse black audiences, achieved politically "representative" success, and contributed to emergent cultural forms. I will examine how different orientations to the dominant politics of respectability imbued plantation verse and "coon" songs with distinct, uneven cultural possibilities. My essay culminates in a discussion of Dunbar's 1902 novel, The Sport of the Gods. Dunbar's contribution to the nascent black naturalist tradition doubles as his state-of-the-nadir address on black representation in art and politics. Overlooked archival evidence suggests that Dunbar drafted Sport in the wake of the 1900 theater-district riot, which targeted Williams, Walker, and the Marshall Circle. Featuring a veiled homage to Williams, Sport delineates the forces that impinge on black identity, while retaining a slender hope that vital art can emerge from violently racist environments. But the novel also underscores a painful reality. Dunbar could never quite unify the diverse approaches to racial representation that he spent his brief, brilliant career developing because diverse turn-of-the-century black cultural forms were generated from quite distinct orientations to contemporaneous political and social conditions.

Being the "Black Poet Laureate": Signifying and Re-Presenting Blackness

The 1898 Wilmington Massacre, which marked the violent suppression of democracy in the South, was the era's watershed event, but it was the North's tacit approval that led Dunbar to remark: "The race spirit in the United States is not local but general" in his most militant essay, "Recession Never" (36). Although the nadir in the North never reached Southern depths of legal disenfranchisement, it was marked by both overt and implicit racial hostility. The national ascendance of Southern white perspectives on race would find expression in intensified racial violence. In August 1900, a brutal Manhattan race riot crystallized the nadir's national scope. …