We Wear The Mask
Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Politics of Representative Reality
Publication Year: 2010
An anthology of the best scholarship on the celebrated African American writer
A prolific nineteenth-century author, Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African American poet to gain national recognition. Praised by Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and Frederick Douglass, who called him “the most promising colored man in America,” Dunbar intrigued readers and literary critics with his depictions of African Americans’ struggle to overcome a legacy of slavery and prejudice. His remarkably large body of work—he wrote eleven volumes of poetry, four short story collections, five novels, three librettos, and a play before his death at thirty-three—draws on the oral storytelling traditions of his ex-slave mother as well as his unconventional education at an all-white public school to explore the evolving identity of the black community and its place in post–Civil War America.
Willie Harrell has assembled a collection of essays on Dunbar’s work that builds on the research published over the last two decades. Employing an array of approaches to Dunbar’s poetic creations, these essays closely examine the self-motivated and dynamic effect of his use of dialect, language, rhetorical strategies, and narrative theory to promote racial uplift. They situate Dunbar’s work in relation to the issues of advancement popular during the Reconstruction era and against the racial stereotypes proliferating in the early twentieth century while demonstrating its relevance to contemporary literary studies.
We Wear the Mask will appeal to scholars and students of African American literature and poetry, as well as those interested in one of the most celebrated and widely taught African American authors.
Published by: The Kent State University Press
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Introduction: Dunbar and the Ethics of Black Identity
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Of the innumerable accomplishments that secured Paul Laurence Dunbar’s footing as America’s “poet laureate of the Negro Race,” perhaps none is more significant than the fact that he fashioned two distinct voices in his works—the traditional English of the conventional poet and the renowned, redolent dialect of African Americans at the turn of the century. Between the publication...
Part I Poetry
1. The Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Influence of African Aesthetics Dunbar’s Poems and the Tradition of Masking
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His fame having rested mostly on his dialect poems, which have origins in the minstrel tradition, many critical studies examine Paul Laurence Dunbar’s work and its relationship to the slave past in America and to the tradition of minstrelsy popularized in nineteenth-century America. By 1899, Dunbar was widely acknowledged as a master of poetic technique who commanded respect in the literary world at home and abroad. He began losing his prestigious status...
2. National Memory and the Arts in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s War Poetry
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Approximately twenty of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s four hundred poems deal with the topic of war. The majority of these works adhere to long established poetic styles; both the poems in dialect and in Standard English are clothed in traditional metrical and stanzaic forms. As is the case with other prevalent themes in his poetry, Dunbar sometimes clearly identifies...
3. “Sing a Song Heroic”: Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Mythic and Poetic Tribute to Black Soldiers
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In 1989, Hollywood’s recognition of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment in the blockbuster film Glory sparked a resurgence of interest in the Civil War and black participation in several historic battles. This film tells the stories not just of the commander, Colonel Shaw, but also of the “six hundred freedmen” who, “motivated by a call to arms by abolitionist Frederick Douglass...
4. Minstrelsy and the Dialect Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar
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In the preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson articulates his now famous position that dialect poetry, which grew out of the plantation and minstrel traditions, was not a viable means of African American literary expression.1 For him, dialect poetry had, at best, a marginal place in the evolving African American literary aesthetic that would lead to...
5. Dunbar, Dialect, and Narrative Theory Subverted Statements in Lyrics of Lowly Life
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Paul Laurence Dunbar’s black dialect poetry brought him immense popularity with the publication of Lyrics of Lowly Life in 1896. Though fewer than a quarter of the 105 poems in the collection are written at least partially in black dialect...
Part II: Race, Rhetoric, and Social Structure
6. Rhetorical Accountability: Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Search for “Representative” Men
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In 1903, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Representative American Negroes” was published in a book titled The Negro Problem, a compilation of essays written by such men as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Charles W. Chesnutt, and T. Thomas Fortune. Lesser-known figures such as Wilford H. Smith and H. T. Kealing...
7. “Jump Back, Honey, Jump Back” Reading Paul Laurence Dunbar in the Context of the Century Magazine
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Academic criticism has recently recovered Paul Laurence Dunbar from William Dean Howells’s influential claim in 1896 that the author of Lyrics of Lowly Life was at his best working in “negro dialect” and “describing the range between appetite and emotion . . . which is the range of [his] race.”1 Today, Dunbar is rightly viewed as a complex and subtle author adept at...
8. The Glamour of Paul Laurence Dunbar Racial Uplift, Masculinity, and Bohemia in the Nadir
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In 1903, Paul Laurence Dunbar was asked to contribute an essay on “Representative American Negroes” to an anthology entitled The Negro Problem, which featured commentary from T. Thomas Fortune, Charles W. Chesnutt, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois. He took the assignment seriously, researching and inquiring into the lives of the men whose lives he sketched...
9. Kemble’s Figures and Dunbar’s Folks
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Summer 1896 marked a turning point in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s career in two ways. In the June issue of Harper’s, William Dean Howells brought national attention to Dunbar’s verse, and in the July issue of the Century, Richard Watson Gilder printed a visual illustration to accompany Dunbar’s poem “A Coquette Conquered” (figure 9.1).1...
10. “We Know de Time Is Ouahs” The Power of Christmas in the Literature of Paul Laurence Dunbar
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One hundred years after the poet’s death, Paul Laurence Dunbar and his legacy merit continued literary study and public appreciation. His achievements are demonstrated by the literary quality and range of his work, the critical debates about his ideology and goals, and his influence on other writers. This chapter focuses on an area that has not yet been addressed...
11. Creating a Representative Community Identity in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s In Old Plantation Days
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Between 1898 and 1904, Paul Laurence Dunbar published four volumes of short stories (Folks from Dixie, 1898; The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories, 1900; In Old Plantation Days, 1903; and The Heart of Happy Hollow, 1904), adding to his already abundant contribution to American literary studies. Since his death in 1906, scholars have investigated...
Part III Novels, Identity, and Representation
12. Memory and Repression in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods
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Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods depicts postbellum declension as Dunbar, beneath the cloak of the plantation novel, tells a tale of national tragedy: the crime of slavery, the false justice of emancipation, and the impossibility of freedom. It is not a novel of resistance. Nor is it a complete submission...
13. A Little Something More Than Something Else: Dunbar’s Colorist Ambivalence in The Sport of the Gods
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Although Paul Laurence Dunbar’s first three novels center on white characters, the fourth novel, The Sport of the Gods (1902), focuses on the rise and fall of the southern black Hamilton family as they leave their rural home and encounter the urban perils of northern migration. Dunbar’s short novel is now recognized as the first depiction of the shift of black populations from the rural South...
14. Mobile Blacks and Ubiquitous Blues Urbanizing the African American Discourses in Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sport of Gods
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At the dawn of the twentieth century, African Americans—well over two million, according to Houston A. Baker Jr.1—were migrating from the American South in record numbers to new locations throughout the North, the Midwest, and the western states. Lured by the promise of true emancipation and social justice, many families traversed difficult and unaccommodating terrains into industrialized...
15. “With Myriad Subtleties”: Constructions of Social Identity in The Sport of the Gods
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In Paul Laurence Dunbar’s final novel, The Sport of the Gods (1902), Skaggs, a reporter from the “yellow” New York Universe who is searching for a topic for an exposé about “a poor and innocent negro,” notes that he “often find[s] the smallest and most insignificant-appearing details pregnant with suggestion.”1...
16. “Nemmine. You Got to Git Somebody Else to Ring Yo’ Ol’ Bell Now”: Nigger Ed and the Rhetoric of Local Color Realism and Racial Protest in Dunbar’s The Fanatics
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The year 1899 was a critical one for Paul Laurence Dunbar. In May, he collapsed on a reading tour in New York, reportedly from pneumonia. Shortly after, doctors detected the actual reason for his illness: the deadly tuberculosis strain had begun its progression. Encouraged by his doctors to travel to Denver, Colorado, Dunbar packed his bags and began, along with his wife, Alice Ruth...
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Lena Ampadu is assistant chair of and professor in the Department of English, Towson University, Maryland, where she teaches composition, Survey of African American Literature, Major Writers of African American Literature, and courses on black women writers. Ampadu also serves as director of the African and African American Studies Program. She received her PhD from the University of...
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Page Count: 256
Illustrations: (To view these images, please refer to print version)
Publication Year: 2010