Dunbar's Children

By Elam, Michele | African American Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Dunbar's Children


Elam, Michele, African American Review


An important but overlooked subgenre of Paul Laurence Dunbar's oeuvre is his poetry for and about children. The poetry is not simply, nor even primarily, for the prepubescent set: often the poetry is a reminiscence about children or about the speaker's childhood, and even when his poetry directly addresses children, it is clearly intended to be overheard by adults, both black and white. (1) Because this particular group of poems was scattered in various collections and published over his lifetime; they have not generally been critically taken as a whole. Yet together they form a poetic collection that foregrounds African American children in ways that counter late 19 -century representations of little black boys and girls as part of the nation's "Negro Problem." Dunbar's children are signs of progress rather than patronage; once natally alienated, they are now portrayed as the nations heirs apparent. (2) Through the refiguration of gender conventions that made black men "boys" and all black people childish, Dunbar styles a generation of black youth who are not eternally fixed in their childhood but, rather, can, like other children, grow up to be fully enfranchised men, women, and citizens.

I. Native Sons

In Spring 2006, Stanford University's Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts featured a traveling Smithsonian exhibit entitled "American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America." (3) Claire Perry, the curator for the exhibit, argues that the iconic images of children are visual repositories of often conflicting national "dreams and fears," and, further, that "artists, as well as politicians, the clergy, novelists, poets and others, turned to childhood and children as a way of establishing a unifying set of values" (qtd. in Palmer 1). The representations of children function as the crucible for and emblems of national identity. As described in the companion book to the exhibition,

   In an era of both optimism and anxiety about the nation's future,
   Americans in the nineteenth century focused attention on the
   cultivation and education of children as future citizens.
   Contemporary portrayals of children--in fine paintings, popular
   prints, illustrated primers, and advertisements--helped to shape
   cultural expectations: pictures of hardy country boys, intent
   schoolchildren, and little girls practicing embroidery were
   examples of the ways model Americans should look and behave. At the
   same time, images showing street urchins, young slaves, or children
   at work in factories reflected troubling conflicts in society.
   (qtd. in "American ABC") (4)

The body of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poetry written for and about children functions similarly as part of a national project, of the move "from an infant republic to a powerful nation with a prominent place in world affairs .... [These] portrayals of the nation's youngest citizens took on an important symbolic role in the United States' long journey towards maturity" ("American ABC'). However, the idea of nation suggested by Dunbar's adored black "scamp" (Braxton 239) is quite different from that suggested by the African American youth represented in the Cantor's "American ABC," who appear, for the most part, in the "Children of Bondage" section of the exhibit. (5) In "American ABC" the artists (all but one of whom are white) depict black children almost exclusively as signs of "conflict," as the companion book suggests, as place-markers for a "Negro Problem" to be solved. Black children in this art, unlike their white counterparts, are not rendered exemplary of the ways "model Americans should look and behave"; in fact, most of the artists visually employ the enslaved and recently emancipated children of color to mark the limits of that standard, and thus, by implication, the limits of civic enfranchisement. (6) In short, black children are represented as problematic for, rather than emblematic of, the nation. …

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