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Dunbar's best qualities are clear. Such early poems as "Accountability" and "An Antebellum Sermon" show flashes

of the unforced gay humor that was to be with him even to the last.

 

 

Sterling Brown on Paul Lawrence Dunbar 

Dunbar and Traditional Dialect

(excerpts) [1937]

 

Early Dialect

Dunbar was not the first Negro poet to use dialect, although his predecessors had not realized the possibilities of the medium. The influential work of white authors in Negro dialect, from Stephen Foster and the minstrel song writers through local colorists such as Irwin Russell, J. A. Macon, Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page, will be our concern in the concluding chapters devoted to poetry. In spite of these forerunners, however, Dunbar was not only the first American Negro to "feel the Negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically," as William Dean Howells wrote, but also the first American poet to handle Negro folklife with any degree of fullness. As a portrayal of Negro life, Dunbar's picture has undoubted limitations, but they are by no means so grave as those of Russell and Page.

Dunbar: Plantation Tradition

Writing in the heyday of the dialect vogue, Dunbar (1872-1906) could not completely escape the influences of these two writers, but the shadow of Page, much the lesser poet, fell more darkly upon him. Almost all of Dunbar's poetry about slavery is of the Page school, some of it directly copied. Old slaves grieve over the lost days, insisting upon the kindliness of old master and mistress, and the boundless mutual affection. Treated approvingly, they grieve that the freedmen deserted the plantation, or wish to die so that they can get to heaven to continue serving old master, or faced by their master's poverty, indignantly decide to

"Tell Marse Linkum for to take his freedom back."

The master is generally pictured as "smiling on de darkies from de hall," or listening to the corn-song from his veranda with a tear in his eye. In Parted, a slave, separated from his beloved, knows that he will come back to her, since

God knows ouah heats, my little dove,
He'll help us from his th'one above

--which seems to be a cruel misreading of history. The very few other poems that admit the distresses of slavery, forget them in memories of cabin dances. "When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers" shows Negroes fighting for their own freedom, but love for the grayclad masters is expressed as well.

Folk Life in Dunbar

These unworthy perpetuations of plantation sentimentalities are fortunately not what Dunbar is known by. He is at his best in his picture of the folk life of his day. He did not know the deep South, but, a willing listener to his mother, an ex-slave, he probably got a good background of folk lore and speech, and he knew small Negro communities of Ohio, Kentucky, Eastern Shore Maryland and the District of Columbia. Influenced by the popular James Whitcomb Riley, he wrote that the

sandy roads is gleamin' wile de city ways is black
Come back, honey, case yo’ country home is best.

His fancy is caught by the parties, spelling bees, church services, by nodding and drowsing in front of the hickory fire, by ripened cider ready to be drunk while the back log is slowly burning through. He deals with charming rural love-affairs, from which the bitterness and disillusion of his personal love poetry are noticeably lacking. Farmers brag of an old mare, or welcome the rain so that they can tinker 'round mending harness, or, like Tam O'Shanter, return a bit worse for drink to irate spouses, and lay the blame for the slowness on old Suke, the nag. For these people Dunbar conveys his friendship warmly.

The Happy Peasant

Though he has written that "it's mighty hard to giggle when dey's nuffin' in de pot," he barely mentions dire poverty, his world being one where

De po'est ones kin live an' play and eat
Whair we draws a simple livin' from de forest an' de tide.

He writes of the countryman's delight in good food, of "wheat bread white ez cotton an' a egg pone jes' like gol'"; of hog jowl, roasted shoat, and all the partitions of the hog; of chickens, turkeys, sweet potato stew, mince pies. One of his poems on possums is a rhymed cooking recipe; one of his less worthy pieces tells of a backwoods suitor winning a wife with a possum. He has a fondness for poetry about hunting and fishing, and the festal seasons of Thanksgiving and Christmas. He is definitely a poet of the happy hearthside and pastoral contentment. Poems that do not show the pleasant life are few. "Blue" suggests a vaguely understood melancholy, poems like "Two Little Boots, " with the touching quality of Eugene Field's "Little Boy Blue," express the grief of stricken parents, and "A Christmas Song" makes use of the folk-saying that a green Christmas means "a hongry churchyard." But explicit revelation of the folk Negro's hardships is absent.

Best Qualities

Dunbar's best qualities are clear. Such early poems as "Accountability" and "An Antebellum Sermon" show flashes of the unforced gay humor that was to be with him even to the last.

[H]is grasp upon folk-speech is generally sure. His rhythms almost never stumble and are frequently catchy: at times as in "Itching Heels" he gets the syncopation of a folk dance. Most of all he took up the Negro peasant as a clown, and made him a likeable person.

Pastoral Picture

Unlike Irwin Russell, whose views of Negro life and character are those of an outsider on a different plane, Dunbar, writing more from within, humanizes his characters and gets more of their true life. There is still, however, a great deal omitted. His picture is undoubtedly idealized. Believing with the romanticists that "God made the country and man made the town," writing that

"the folks I meet in any other spot,
Ain't half so good as those I knowed back home in Possum Trot"

he left out many of the more unpleasant aspects of life. His backsliders are guilty only of such "sins" as dancing after joining church, or of comic fisticuffs. More serious is his omission of the hardships that the Negro folk met with as much in Dunbar's day as in ours. Reasons for such omission may have been Dunbar's own kindheartedness and forgivingness, or his lack of deep acquaintance with the South. Or it may have been the influence of his literary school, his audience and his publishers, or of the professional conciliators who in that day guided racial expression. Be the reason what it may, one of these or all, the fact of omission remains. Dunbar concentrated upon a pastoral picture. No picture of Negro life that is only pastoral can be fully true.

Dunbar: Standard English

[M]any of his own people welcome the poems in standard (miscalled "literary") English and consider the dialect to be merely pot-boiling, or at least, the harmless straying of genius.

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Dunbar’s poems in standard English are of many sorts. There are many love-poems, some heavily sentimentalized like "Ione," which is certainly worse than any of his dialect; and echoes of belated romantic poets, conventional and undistinguished. At times, however, as in "The Debt," "Parted," and "Forever" he speaks simply and directly; sometimes the burden of his own unfortunate love affair breaks through and the result is rewarding.

I had no known before
Forever was so long a word
The slow stroke of the clock of time
I had not heard. . . .

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RACE CONSCIOUS POETRY

Dunbar likewise wrote race-conscious poetry. This varies in quality from the school-boy recitation pieces like "The Colored Soldiers" and "Black Sampson of Brandywine,"

an ebony giant
Black as the pinions of night--

to more dignified sonnets to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Robert Gould Shaw, the militant Douglass and the unmilitant Booker T. Washington. Only occasionally does he speak out. "The New South" can still refer, in the accents of Gray's "Elegy" to the slave "jocund as the day," can contrast the abuses of the present with the "glory of the South's ancient days:"

And thou [the South] wilt take, e'en with thy spear in rest
Thy dusky children to thy saving breast.

"We Wear The Mask" is probably a poem about the race; but it is generalized protest, still masked. "The Haunted Oak" is a specific poem upon lynching in the ballad form; the spokesman is the oak tree. When Dunbar dealt with the harsher aspects of Negro life, he discarded not only dialect, but also directness and simplicity. Such a poem as "Ode to Ethiopia" is popular with Negro audiences, probably because of its propaganda of aspiration. Like so much of Negro expression of the period, it praises the nobility of forgetting and forgiving.

Dunbar: Summary

Many of Dunbar's standard English poems are deservedly among his best known. His mastery of rhythm and of the poetic vocabulary of romantic poetry is superior to that of any preceding Negro poet. Being too facile, however, and having little chance for thorough grounding in his craft and in  American Tennysonians to which he belonged. Although his standard English poems lack the freshness, humor, and life of his dialect, their imitativeness is to be expected from a poet of his time and upbringing, and their achievement in many instances is high.

Source: Negro Poetry and Drama. Copyright © 1937 by the Associates in Negro Folk Education.

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books

For July 1st through August 31st 2011
 

Fiction

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#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

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The Price of Civilization

Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

The Price of Civilization is a book that is essential reading for every American. In a forceful, impassioned, and personal voice, he offers not only a searing and incisive diagnosis of our country’s economic ills but also an urgent call for Americans to restore the virtues of fairness, honesty, and foresight as the foundations of national prosperity. Sachs finds that both political parties—and many leading economists—have missed the big picture, offering shortsighted solutions such as stimulus spending or tax cuts to address complex economic problems that require deeper solutions. Sachs argues that we have profoundly underestimated globalization’s long-term effects on our country, which create deep and largely unmet challenges with regard to jobs, incomes, poverty, and the environment. America’s single biggest economic failure, Sachs argues, is its inability to come to grips with the new global economic realities. Sachs describes a political system that has lost its ethical moorings, in which ever-rising campaign contributions and lobbying outlays overpower the voice of the citizenry. . . . Sachs offers a plan to turn the crisis around. He argues persuasively that the problem is not America’s abiding values, which remain generous and pragmatic, but the ease with which political spin and consumerism run circles around those values. He bids the reader to reclaim the virtues of good citizenship and mindfulness toward the economy and one another.

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 29 June 2008 

 

 

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