Critical Response: Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar was a part of an American era that is honestly quite hard for me to comprehend and empathize with. A period of cultural hybridity in which the black man was free and yet still not “free”. This produced in many either a longing to cross over that “veil” as W.E.B. DuBois put it, into the great white light of Caucasian culture, or to settle into their bona fide yet painful place as a conscious member of the African American community. Dunbar highlights this inner tug-of-war within his poetry by creating in the reader the sort of identity that he wishes them to see.

In his poem, “When Malindy Sings”, Dunbar shows that to be a true black artist is something to be celebrated and even sought-after. Throughout the poem the speaker describes to Miss Lucy, who I believe to be a white woman, the incredible sound that is the singing of Malindy.   In stanza 2 lines 9-12 the speaker teases saying, “You ain’t got de nachel o’gans/  Fu’ to make de soun’ come right,/ You ain’t got de tu’ns an’ twistin’s/   Fu’ to make it sweet an’ light”. These lines are calling to attention the talent of black artists compared to the talent of white artists by holding the talent of African American to a much higher esteem than that of Caucasian artists. Dunbar’s poem overflows with this idea of black pride, which Langston Hughes describes by saying, “We younger Negro artists who now intend to express our individual dark-skinner selves without fear or shame. If white people are please we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too”.

In Dunbar’s poem “An Ante-Bellum Sermon” the speaker teaches about the biblical exodus in comparison to the American south. One line in particular states, “An’ dah’s othahs thinks lak Pher’or,/ But dey calls de Scriptuah liar,/ Fu’ de Bible says “a servant Is worthy of his hire,”. These lines not only compares the white people of Dunbars time to pharaoh, but also suggests that they are not the Christians they claim to be because they ignore or avoid what the Bible says. The poem also elevates blacks to the same level as whites by using biblical examples and proving their innocence with something that whites held to be true.

While different than DuBois’ double consciousness, Dunbar’s perspectives of white and black America still identify the same bitter struggle for blacks to validate their culture and someday to be considered equal.


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