Academic journal article African American Review

"Purple Haze": Dunbar's Lyric Legacy

Academic journal article African American Review

"Purple Haze": Dunbar's Lyric Legacy

Article excerpt

"The measure of our songs is our desires" --Paul Laurence Dunbar, "Prometheus" 1. 30

"Dunbar" was a name that had a certain gravitational force about it in my youth. For me, as for so many of my generation, it was an ever multiplying geographical designator long before it attached itself in my mind to matters literary. As I moved about from place to place, I found it attached to hotels, hospitals, schools. By the time my family had lodged itself near the nation's capital, I knew that this name had belonged to a famous poet, and so it made a certain sense to me when I later learned that he was the same Dunbar in whose memory DC's Dunbar High School had been named. It was impossible to live in DC in that time and not encounter the glorious graduates of that school; for poets, Sterling Brown was perhaps the most memorable among them. Dunbar High was a sign for the literary per se in those days; among Sterling Brown's teachers on that school's faculty had been a grandson of Frederick Douglass as well as the novelist Jessie Fauset. All this I knew long before I learned of Dunbar's own sojourn in Washington, long before I knew of his long days spent ferrying books back and forth as a courier in the corridors of the Library of Congress. Congress had not yet established a Poet Laureateship, and, for that matter, took little note of the fact that the United States's foremost African American poet was in their employ. Dunbar himself was attuned to the ironies of his situation. In "Unexpressed" he writes, "The right of thoughts' expression is divine; / The price of pain I pay for it has bought it" (11.6-7), but those are not the lines for which he had become famous. If he had much to teach his country about the right of thought's expression, he knew it was a prodigious and mostly unwelcome lesson; rather like, to quote from his "Song of Summer," a "Jaybird chattin' wif a bee, / Tryin' to teach him grammah" (11.23-24).

If Dunbar's contemporary reception was attenuated, for all his fame, testy, radically insufficient, the observable fact is that we have never quite known what to make of him. I have learned in conversations with my own contemporaries that many of them never studied Dunbar in their college classes. Dunbar was a required and integral portion of a required course in African American literature at the undergraduate institution I attended, Federal City College, which was, in the 1970s, unique in its status as an urban land grant liberal arts college. I have come to recognize in retrospect that I did benefit from a truly exceptional education, a curriculum not available then at schools sufficiently exclusive that they tended to exclude myself and many of my cohort. At Federal City College we received an elite education (not an education for the elite) nearly for free, that incorporated Dunbar as a poet any English major should know. But even then, it was not entirely clear what we should know of Dunbar, let alone what we should make of him.

Not much has changed in three decades. Today, as in his own time, as in the time of my college years, he is in the public mind the poet of "When Dey 'Listed Colored Soldiers," of "Chrismus on the Plantation," of my own favorite (I was, after all, raised a Baptist), "How Lucy Backslid," long before he is the cantankerous poet of "To a Captious Critic" or the severe ironist of "Compensation." Graduate students today are far more likely to take up Dunbar than were the students of three decades past, but it is the Dunbar of The Sport of the Gods on which they are most likely to expound in their dissertations, not the Dunbar of so profoundly current and disturbing a poem as his "The Right to Die." It is difficult truly to lift a studied legacy from amid this tangle, and so for the most part, we haven't. There is general agreement that Dunbar can be located somewhere in the moil of arguments for the critical centrality of the vernacular, but even this concurrence is more often assumed than analyzed. …

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