Academic journal article African American Review

The City as Refuge: Constructing Urban Blackness in Paul Laurence Dunbar's the Sport of the Gods and James Weldon Johnson's the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Academic journal article African American Review

The City as Refuge: Constructing Urban Blackness in Paul Laurence Dunbar's the Sport of the Gods and James Weldon Johnson's the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Article excerpt

Almost as soon as blacks could write, it seems, they set out to redefine--against already received racist stereotypes--who and what a black person was. (Gates 131)

This essay analyzes the narrative strategies that Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson used to represent black characters in The Sport of the Gods and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man as a means of examining the authors' construction of the city as an alternative space for depicting African Americans. In late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fiction, the majority of African American images in popular fiction were confined to Southern-based pastoral depictions that restricted black identity to stereotypically limited and historically regressive ideas, exemplified in such characters as Zip Coon, Sambo, Uncle Tom, Jim Crow, and Mammy Jane. The plantation tradition inherently connected blacks to the country by marking them as rustic, and blacks were seen as simple, primitive people who needed the protection of the benevolent whites they served. Positive depictions of African Americans in urban settings were neither prevalent nor acceptable to the literary establishment; as Dickson Bruce, Jr., states, African American writers "could talk about themselves, their hopes, their aspirations, only in the language of mainstream America" (37). With exceedingly few exceptions, (1) African American characters who were placed in urban spaces were portrayed using the pastoral identities that had been defined by Southern, post-Reconstruction authors.

These pastoral representations--I am thinking of the writings of such authors as Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page, whose black characters were based on romanticized figures taken from a nostalgic and idealized past--positioned blacks as servile and dependent characters who were happy-go-lucky or surly and dangerous, or, at times, a combination of both. African Americans were presented as out of place in any location apart from their rural country homes, unable to deal with the complexities of normal life and requiring the help of their former masters to survive. Thus, characters like Harris's Uncle Remus and Page's Sam from "Marse Chan" came to be accepted by Northern readers as legitimate representations of African Americans. The growth of realism as a literary school during the late 1880s and early 1890s further exacerbated this problem. Led by William Dean Howells, who advocated "that there is no greatness, no beauty, which does not come from truth to your own knowledge of things" (Criticism 145), realism uncritically accepted and internalized the South's pastoral depictions of African Americans. Once these types of characters had been established in the public's mind, they became a part of the formulaic structure through which realism's mimetic efficacy was measured. Fiction that did not replicate acceptable literary types was dismissed for its lack of fidelity to the established codes of ethnic description, and the racist and stereotypical descriptions of blacks constructed by Southern authors moved into the mainstream. In the process, an author's personal knowledge, which had previously been one of the foundational tenets of realism as a literary practice, was no longer sufficient to validate the characters that were presented in his or her text: An author's depictions also had to comply with the established parameters used to represent African Americans. This was the paradox that authors like Dunbar and Johnson faced; their personal knowledge of African American life was acceptable only if it mirrored established conventions.

Thus, while the city offered the space for a potentially new start for African American authors, a clean slate that could be used to challenge realism's reified pastoral caricaturizations of blacks, obtaining access to that space was not simple. The ascendancy of realism in the 1890s conditioned how blacks were recognized in the public realm; African Americans were presented as out of place in the city, merely imitating white civility and refinement. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.