Academic journal article African American Review

Right to Ride: African American Citizenship and Protest in the Era of Plessy V. Ferguson

Academic journal article African American Review

Right to Ride: African American Citizenship and Protest in the Era of Plessy V. Ferguson

Article excerpt

Jim Crow was a traveling intruder, a black interloper in all-white spaces. Originally, Jim Crow was a folk character featured in the rhyming games of slave children. (1) As the black-faced minstrel character played by the white performer Thomas "Daddy" Rice, Jim Crow was an uncouth, uncultured, humorously dangerous runaway slave, insistent on barging in on the white world. Jim Crow was an insistent traveler; in Rice's performances, he could frequently be found riding in otherwise elegant trains, streetcars, and steamboats. (2) White audiences made Rices minstrel performances enormously popular in the 1830s, marking the consciousness of the United States with the image of the black intruder. The racial segregation of public conveyances was designed to prevent the kind of transgression of the social order that the character Jim Crow frequently committed in minstrel performances. The name Jim Crow became synonymous with the inferior, racially segregated train cars designated for black passengers, first in the antebellum North and later in the post-war South. The Jim Crow car was the place to shunt black passengers; a place where the "uncivilized negro" of white imaginations could be prevented from mingling with whites. As one judge argued, racial segregation helped "prevent contacts and collisions" that came from "a promiscuous sitting" (Railroad v. Miles, qtd. in Bowie v. Birmingham 1019).

The career of Paul Laurence Dunbar emerged from the shadow of Jim Crow. Critics like William Dean Howells cited Dunbar as the new voice of black artistic authenticity, the pre-eminent black literary figure of his day. Like the character Jim Crow, Dunbar reminded white Americans of the legacy of slavery; reviewers commented that the "dusky singer" was the "son of slaves" ("Negro Poet"). Some even questioned whether his use of dialect and slave tales was a form of minstrelsy. However, Dunbar hoped his audiences would "differentiate dialect as a philological branch from the burlesque of negro minstrelsy" (Letter to Helen Douglass). Early in his career, Dunbar saw the use of dialect as a preservation of black language, not a joke at black people's expense. For Dunbar, dialect could also be a site of subversion and trickery central to African American resistance and survival. (3) The author served as a counterpoint to antebellum minstrelsy, through the nuance of his writing and the dignity of his recitations.

Writing in opposition to the images created by Rice's portrayal of Jim Crow, Dunbar presented the eloquent expression of a generation wedged between the promises of freedom and the disappointments of segregation. His literary works often appealed to stereotypes and then complicated them, empathizing with images of the slave past while insisting on full citizenship in the present. Dunbar even offered an explanation for the "grins and lies" of the minstrel Jim Crow in one of his most famous poems, "We Wear the Mask"; such masked performances hid anger, disappointment, and dissent (1.1).

While Dunbar could challenge the limitations of Jim Crow in literature, Jim Crow segregation and the boundaries of race confronted Dunbar repeatedly during his travels. Central to his success as a poet was his recitation of his work throughout the nation. A December 1895 article chronicling the life of the young poet reported that Dunbar had "gained considerable reputation as an elocutionist and lecturer" and had "spoken throughout Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and in some of the larger cities of Canada" ("Writes"). Dunbar traveled abroad to England in 1897, and continued to travel throughout the nation for recitals between 1898 and 1902. Speaking tours not only popularized Dunbar's work, but also helped him make a living. Honoraria, ticket sales, and the sale of his books during these tours supported his art and the needs of his family. (4) Dunbar delighted audiences both black and white, but was forced to confront the demeaning practices of Jim Crow. …

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