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Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Poems of the Black Man

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Ohio in 1872, just a few years after the Civil War ended. He lived during a tremendous time of social change, not only for his people as they both hoped for a better future and struggled through more of the same, but also for the country as it began industrializing throughout the north causing great waves of people to move into the cities. His parents had both been slaves prior to having him and his mother would often tell him stories about her life before the war, but omitted the harsher realities so as not to frighten him (Young 113). This element of his understanding of slavery would cause his work to be criticized in later years, but, as the first black man to gain white recognition for his work, this aspect of his writing can be forgiven. Although he wanted to be a lawyer, he discovered he could not afford the tuition to continue his education beyond high school and he spent some years seeking work in a variety of fields.

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He eventually found work as an elevator operator which provided him with the additional time he needed to continue writing and, by 1892 when he was just 20 years old, one of his former English teachers invited him to speak in front of the Western Association of Writers (Young 113). He fashioned his speech into a 26-line poem and impressed his audience enough to gain him entry into the association and launched his career as a writer. During his lifetime, he published three books of poetry as well as some fiction and song lyrics, but his career was cut short when he died of tuberculosis at the age of 33 in 1906. Perhaps as a result of his own experiences – his mother’s sad yet romantic tales of slavery on the plantation, his own self-achievement and struggle for recognition – Dunbar proved a master at expressing his race’s paradoxical hope and despair. In his poem “Ante-bellum Sermon”, he expresses the hope and despair of the Southern Blacks while he depicts these same sentiments existing in the North through his poem “We Wear the Mask.”

Black people in the South following the Civil War were not necessarily any better off as freemen than they were as slaves. Although they had gained rights through the federal government, local governments and daily realities kept them suppressed and in abject poverty (Ruef & Fletcher, 2003). While the rest of the world called them free, their experience told them they remained severely restricted within a class of slaves. According to some studies, if it hadn’t been for the educational interventions of the Freedmen’s Bureau coupled with the widespread black diaspora toward the North that followed the ending of the war, the South might still be operating with their former highly oppressive states (Ruef & Fletcher, 2003). Within this type of shifting society, one can see the continuous hope of a better future in the willingness to move as well as the despair of ever achieving any higher status than that of slaves in the constant struggle to overcome the bureaucratic machine. Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “Ante-bellum Sermon” attempts to provide the Southern Black with hopeful encouragement. He appeals to their hope by pulling out a Biblical example of historic events as a means of calling for a leader, soothes them physically by giving the words an easy rhythm that invokes a pleasant inner rocking sensation and supports them emotionally by speaking to them in their own dialect and thus making an internal connection.

A great deal of the poem works to make its case that the community both needs and will eventually have a great leader to provide them with a better life as Biblical history have provided an example of God’s intentions. “Dey kin fo’ge yo’ chains an’ shackles / F’om de mountains to de sea; / But de Lawd will sen’ some Moses / Fu’ to set his chillun free” (29-32). In the first two lines, it can be seen that the speaker recognizes the people are still bound by chains and shackles. The only difference is that now these chains and shackles are invisible to their former defenders in the North who pay little attention to the actual local, county and state legislation that continued to hold the black man under the white man’s thumb.

“The widespread emblems of the supplicant slave, the ragtag runaway, and the abused slave woman suggested a closed set of choices for antebellum identity: either as white/master/abuser/father/voyeur/reader or as black/slave/victim/mother/object/brute” (Chaney 1168). While many writers felt constrained by these two options, other writers such as Dunbar were attempting to show them the way out of this dichotomy into a more open and promising future through this type of narrative. “Ex-slave authors tenuously inhabited both of those contrary positions, they found them intolerable and engineered ways of disembodying and disconnection the conventions” (Chaney 1168). Dunbar accomplishes this shock of narrative as he follows his acknowledgment of subjugation with both the historical promise of Moses setting the Hebrews free out of Egypt and the suggestion that someone will need to rise to fill this position for the Southern Blacks.

As he delivers his lines, the speaker of the poem maintains a regular pulsing rhythm that is at once energetic and reassuring. This is best seen through a lengthy example as the speaker attempts to cover himself against accusations of causing trouble: “Now don’t run an’ tell yo’ mastahs / Dat I’s preachin’ discontent. / ‘Cause I isn’t; I’se a judgin’ / Bible people by deir ac’s; / I’se a-givin’ you de fac’s. / Cose ole Pher’oh b’lieved in slav’ry, / But de Lawd he let him see / dat de people he put bref in, — / Evah mothah’s son was free” (47-56). The poem is written with five stressed beats to every line. When delivered verbally, this type of rhythm takes on a sing-song quality that creates a sense of energetic movement in the mind. At the same time, each line is rhymed with the one above it, giving a sense of continuity and reassuring expectation. On the printed page, each line is divided after the third beat as a means of preserving this comfortable and quick beat while reducing the frightening appearance of long lines of text.

By speaking to the people in their own dialect, the speaker creates an immediate emotional connection between his listeners/readers. At no point does he attempt to provide an Anglicized version of the events, but continues to speak with words such as “wif” and “Dat” instead of ‘with’ and ‘that’. He includes himself as one of the enslaved as he continues to emphasize he is merely preaching the Bible and finishes strongly by telling his listener/reader, “We will praise de gracious Mastah / Dat has gin our liberty” (83-84), firmly linking himself with them as a part of the brotherhood of unrecognized citizens that will one day be counted. Dunbar had an intuitive understanding of how his use of dialect affected his audience.

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In an interview, he once said “Whatever is most charming about the negro dialect is in the way of endearing words. Its genre is domestic so to speak” (Cohen 247). This understanding enabled him to get close to the feelings and attitudes of his listeners and speak to their souls. “Although Dunbar was born after the Civil War and lived his entire life in northern cities, he became the poet of southern, rural black folk because pre-existing modes of thought about folk genres provided readers with paradigms to read him as such” (Cohen 248). In this statement, Cohen acknowledges that as much of this perception was in the minds of the readers as it was in the heart of the poet at the time he was writing his poem.

By appealing to the listener/reader’s intellect through logic, his body through the rhythm and rhyme of the poem and his emotions by connecting with his inner language and sense of suffering, the poem retains a strong power over those experiencing it. Through the logical argument, the speaker attempts to both reassure and galvanize the reader into action by attempting to take up the Moses role. The physical senses evoked through rhythm and rhyme further suggest to the body that something needs to be done even as the motion remains a comforting inner rocking one. Finally, the emotional connection to suffering and community supported by the examples of God himself serves to bolster feelings of hope and comfort.

Dunbar turns these same powers of perception onto the Northern Black in his poem “We Wear the Mask.” In this poem, he illustrates the various ways in which black people hide their true selves from the public behind a broad smile to help entertain and set them at ease. However, the truth of the black existence is one of near-constant pain and suffering as they continuously came up against racial bias in hiring and promotion practices. This is made clear from his first line, “We wear the mask that grins and lies / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes” (1-2). In this, Dunbar illustrates the requirement for black people to hide their faces in order to grin, but also the fear they feel if they should remove this mask from the wrong company.

In serving the white man, black people must hide their “torn and bleeding hearts” (4) and “all our tears and sighs” (7) if they wish to discover any form of success in life. However, the mask is also seen as a source of pride in that the black man has something that the white man can’t share. “Why should the world be over-wise, / In counting all our tears and sighs? / Nay, let them only see us, while / We wear the mask” (Dunbar 6-9). In his own assessment of the poem, Dunbar suggests that it was written to be intentionally ambiguous in its identifications. “With deeply affecting pronouns, biting diction, and ironic verbs, he creates a poem that allows the reader’s interpretation to vary and their views to be voiced through the poem” (Dunbar 34). Rather than allowing the white man to gloat in the black man’s suffering, Dunbar suggests that the mask can be used as a means of defying the white man’s wishes. Rather than allowing the white man to see them suffer, they wear the mask that enables them to get along while suffering all the same.

Through his style, rhythm, language and approach, Dunbar is able to illustrate the unique condition of the black man in America just after the Civil War. His poems are able to make a connection with the northern despair of poverty and lack of well-paying, educated jobs as well as the southern despair of continued oppression to something akin to the slave state itself at the same time that they are able to convey a sense of hope for the future. This hope is found in the cities as the black man learns to hide his true face behind a mask intended to deceive and amuse the white people who need to feel in control as they sing and dance their way into the education and employment positions they need to create a better world for their children. It is also found in the rural south as the black people come together and begin to learn the strength they have in numbers once they find an effective leader to show them the way. While arguments can be made that Dunbar was pessimistic regarding the black condition and that Dunbar was optimistic, this analysis demonstrates that he was neither and both.

Works Cited

Chaney, Michael A. Fugitive Vision: Slave Image and Black Identity in Antebellum Narrative. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008.

Cohen, Michael. “Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Genres of Dialect.” African American Review. Vol. 41, N. 2, (2007): 247-257.

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Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “What’s Behind the Mask?” Literary Cavalcade. Vol. 56, N. 6, (2004): 34-35.

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “An Antebellum Sermon”; “We Wear the Mask.” The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. VA: University of Virginia Press, 1993.

Ruef, Martin & Ben Fletcher. “Legacies of American Slavery: Status Attainment among Southern Blacks after Emancipation.” Social Forces. Vol. 82, I. 2, (2003): 445-480.

Young, Robyn V. (Ed.). “Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906).” Poetry Criticism. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992: 113-149.

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