Academic journal article African American Review

Dunbar Lives!

Academic journal article African American Review

Dunbar Lives!

Article excerpt

In the course of writing this essay, I have found something that surprised me: Dunbar matters very much to contemporary African American poets. And I have also discovered how Dunbar matters to me. Several years ago I had a conversation with another African American poet. We ranged from topic to topic to topic, and I mentioned that when I was growing up my father would occasionally recite Paul Laurence Dunbar's "The Party." He did so joyfully and apropos of nothing but exuberance, as far as my brother and I could tell:

   Dey had a great big pahty down to Tom's de othah night;
   Was I dah? You bet! I nevah in my life see sich a sight;
   All de folks f'om fou' plantations was invited, an' dey come,
   Dey come troopin' thick ez chillun when dey hyeahs a fife an' drum.
  (11. 1-4)

This recitation was always a thrill. He had "slipped into the vernacular," as we said, vernacular always having the article "the" and one's movement from another kind of speech to said vernacular always described as "slipping." I think, actually, that noticing and loving these shifts in diction are what made me a poet, growing up around my mother's Sugar Hill Harlem queen's English; my grandfather's Jamaican music and vocabulary, his use of figurative language; my grandmother's soft, drawn-out Alabama vowels mixed with etymological wizardry and syntactic starch shaped by her teachers in the 1920s at Paul Laurence Dunbar high school in Washington, DC; my father's magnificent Harlem vernacular; the Yiddish inflections and improvisational suffix-ing and wry humor of my parents' Jewish New York City schoolteachers; and then, oh how can I forget, the fluent Cackalacka spoken on the streets and front stoops of the Washington, DC, where I was reared in its eternal springtime? All of it in a big ole pot. How could I not become a poet in the midst of all that cross-pollinating American English? I should be a much better poet, actually, with all of that to draw on.

But during this conversation with my black poet friend, she replied, "My father used to recite 'The Party' too!" This sameness was surprising to both of us; I had thought of my father's recitation as being unique to our family, part of our own particular orality, our family syllabus. But the coincidence with the other poet gave me a sense of Dunbar as a poet whose legacy was intimately related to black home space and oral practice.

Certainly, if you asked a handful of contemporary black poets to quickly name who has influenced their work in the canon, you would be more likely I am certain to hear Brooks, Hayden, Hughes, and for younger writers, Sanchez, Baraka, Clifton, Dove, and Komunyakaa, named before Dunbar. Yet I suspect Dunbar resides in the gray matter of many black poets, the sub-rosa given that crucially undergirds much of our practice regardless of background, training, region, and aesthetic. For, really, the century and the tradition are in some ways very short. Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks leapfrog the entire twentieth century for us if you think of how Brooks was personally known and in our midst for my generation of poets, and her long correspondence with Hughes as well as her early correspondence with James Weldon Johnson takes us directly to Dunbar himself. In other words, a Dunbar is only a great-grandfather to today's practicing poets. Though it has been a busy century for African American poetry and African American people, nonetheless we are not far from what some might see as the significant beginnings of our traditions, the first black poet to do it "as a job," if you will, the very idea of the black poet, with attendant issues and contradictions in the life lived and in the aesthetics that remains relevant for us today.

I never studied Dunbar in school, not high school or undergraduate nor graduate school, even in African American literature classes. African American studies in the '80s, when I was educated, had other business to attend to, mostly black women's literature, the complex and thorny questions of criticism and theory, and literary resurrection and historiography. …

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