You kin talk about yer anthems
An’ yer arias an’ sich
An’ yer modern choir-singin’
That you think so awful rich;
But you orter heerd us youngsters
In the times now far away,
A-singin’ o’ the ol’ tunes
In the ol’?”fashioned way.
This first stanza of the dialect poem, “The Ol’ Tunes,” was written by Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was born in Dayton, Ohio, on June 27, 1872, the son of former slaves. His widowed mother insisted that he finish high school. It was a huge sacrifice and struggle for both of them. She washed laundry for the city’s hotels, and Dunbar returned the sheets and towels to the hotels for his mother. Afterwards, he waited outside the hotel hoping to earn a penny or two by holding a horse as a wealthy patron stepped down from his carriage. He made extra money by lighting gas lamps at all the corners of his neighborhood and by raking leaves and cutting grass at rich homes across town.
During the first half of the 20th century, Dunbar was one of America’s most celebrated poets. His works were recited in most homes, churches, and schools in African-American communities throughout the United States. He had a short life, dying on Feb. 9, 1906 at age 33. In a few months, 100 years will have passed since his death. Although he became world famous for his Southern black dialect poems, he was more than a poet.
He was also a fiction writer, creating short stories throughout his life. By the age of 11, Paul had written several short stories, including “An Easter Ode.” In 1888, at age 16, while still in high school, he wrote stories for his friends Orville and Wilbur Wright (inventors of the airplane), which appeared in their newspaper, the Dayton Tattler. The first issue carried a “The Gambler’s Wife,” a western tale about cowboys. The second issue featured a mystery romance titled, “His Bride of the Tomb.”
“The Tenderfoot” was published by the Kellogg Syndicate Newspaper Company in Chicago. The Tenderfoot was a cowboy and Indian tale. In 1898, Dodd, Mead & Company published a book of his short stories titled, Folks from Dixie. One of the stories, “The Ordeal at Mt. Hope,” was about African Americans developing racial pride. The main character, Rev. Dokesbury, came to the South with the idea of fighting racial oppression. One way he said for blacks to fight oppression was to seek higher education for themselves so they could integrate into American society at higher levels.
Similarly, in late 1903, at age 29, Dunbar issued a new book of short stories, In Old Plantation Days, in which he commented on the hardships of slavery. In “Viney’s Free Papers,” a female slave decided to stay in the South after her husband refused to move to the North. It was difficult for the husband to leave the environment he was familiar with.
Near the end of his life, in the spring of 1904, at age 31, another volume of short stories, The Heart of Happy Hallow, was published. The stories were about working-class blacks in cities north and south, wherever the laborer, the porter, and the waiter are the society men of the town. One story depicted a lynching, and another told about the life of an unsung hero?”a washerwoman.
He was also a novelist. Interested in the race problem, he wrote two novels about racism. His third novel, The Fanatics, examined the subtle aspects of the race problem. The novel looked at how difficult it was for blacks to attain full acceptance as citizens. Blacks who had already been in the North for awhile actually joined forces with whites for a time to conspire against other blacks.
“All party lines fell away,” he wrote, “and all the people are united in one cause?”resistance to invasion of the black hordes.”
The Fanatics also looked at how discouraging it was for former slaves to have freedom?”only to be viewed as socially unequal. Another novel that dealt with racism was The Sport of the Gods, in which Dunbar explored how hard it could be for blacks to succeed in America. The main character goes to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. When the southern community turns against the family, the family moves to New York to start anew. They find it hard to cope in the big city. One son becomes a drunk and a murderer, a daughter ends up as a second-rate showgirl, and the mother marries a low-rent gambler who mistreats her.
Finally, Paul Dunbar was an essayist. He wrote numerous editorials about discrimination and racial injustice that were published in America’s major newspapers. One of his articles was about black soldiers who fought in the Spanish?”American War. He wrote about them being denied the right to vote in some states, pointing out the hypocrisy of the American government. “You may be heroes in war, but you must be lowbrow in peace,” he said. In another editorial he wrote on lynching and race riots: “After all, the question is not the Negro’s fitness to rule or vote, but of the white’s right to murder him for the sake of instruction.” Finally, his editorial published in the Chicago Tribune on the Fourth of July, 1903, spoke of a nation that bragged about freedom but withheld the right to vote and the right to equal employment from many of its citizens.
“Like a dark cloud, pregnant with terror and destruction, disenfranchisement has spread its wings over brethren of the South. Like the same dark cloud, industrial prejudice glooms above us in the North. … And yet we celebrate.”
Paul Laurence Dunbar’s body of work included short stories, novels, and numerous essays. In his works, he wrote about what black people thought. He spoke for the black person entering into the cities, learning to adopt new ways, and remembering the past. He wrote against prejudice and discrimination of black people. He reflected honestly the black experience in a time of extreme Jim Crowism.
He’s worth remembering.