Paul Laurence Dunbar and Turn-into-the-20th-Century African American Dualism

By Smethurst, James | African American Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Paul Laurence Dunbar and Turn-into-the-20th-Century African American Dualism


Smethurst, James, African American Review


Paul Gilroy has powerfully claimed that the notion of double consciousness in which the black subject "ever feels his twoness" was used by W. E. B. Du Bois to figure a diasporic, and sometimes transatlantic black modernity expressing the ambivalent location of people of African descent simultaneously within and beyond what is known as "the West" (111-45). Certainly, Du Bois's articulation of dualism has remained a powerful trope available to a wide range of artists and intellectuals both inside and outside of the United States down to the present. However, to understand why Du Bois's formulation of the concept has had such force, one has to examine its relationship to similar expressions of African American dualism, within the political and cultural context in which these various articulations appeared. As Ernest Allen, Jr., points out, Du Bois's notion of double consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk as an appropriate description of the literally divided spiritual and psychological conditions of individual black artists and intellectuals at the turn into the twentieth century is dubious at best--however powerful the metaphor seemed to later generations (217-20). However, as a figuration of the divided political status of African Americans, and their ambivalent position in what might be thought of as the consciousness of the nation as expressed in law, historiography, literature, art, popular culture, and so on, the concept of double consciousness and other tropes of African American dualism were convincingly apt.

Du Bois's The Souls is often seen as sounding a note of dissent within what has been termed the age of Booker T. Washington in African American thought and politics--though, to extend the musical metaphor, one can see it in many respects as a variation on Washington's theme or a revision of a Washingtonian rift. Yet it is worth recalling that it was also the age of Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose critical and professional success as a literary artist among black and white readers was unprecedented for an African American author. As Countee Cullen claimed in the introduction to the 1926 anthology of black poetry Caroling Dusk, black and white readers assigned (and long continued to assign) to Dunbar a "uniquity as the first Negro to attain and to maintain a distinguished place among American poets, a place fairly merited by the most acceptable standards of criticism" (x-xi). Dunbar, in fact, was among the most successful poets of his era. James Weldon Johnson recalled about an extended visit that Dunbar paid his family in Jacksonville in 1901, that when Dunbar sent off poems to the leading literary journals of the era, acceptance notes (and checks) followed almost immediately. Dunbar's work also inspired black literary societies devoted to the reading of his poetry (Johnson 160; Knupfer 23-24).

The age of Dunbar, Washington, and the early Du Bois is one of paradox. Dunbar (born 1872) and his African American age cohort, including Du Bois (born 1868), Johnson (born 1871) and even the older Washington (born 1856), Anna Julia Cooper (born 1858), and Charles Chesnutt (born 1858), were the first generation to grow up after Emancipation. Unlike his parents, who had been enslaved, Dunbar was born free after the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Yet the hopes and promises of Reconstruction were clearly being wiped out by the early 1890s even though those amendments were not repealed, but remained part of the Constitution, requiring a considerable capacity for contradiction on the part of the Supreme Court to rule them consonant with the new Jim Crow laws of segregation and black disenfranchisement in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Williams v. Mississippi (1898). This legal and political dualism was mirrored, though perhaps in the distorting manner of a circus funhouse, by a similarly double and ambivalent black cultural position with the simultaneous emergence of a relatively distinct African American trans-regional popular culture and of a linked and similarly national "mainstream" popular culture that excluded African Americans in some respects and absolutely depended on the representation and recreation of black bodies, black voices, and black culture in others. …

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