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  • Black Naturalism, White Determinism:Paul Laurence Dunbar's Naturalist Strategies
  • Thomas L. Morgan (bio)

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born into a country with already existing expectations regarding African Americans. While this is not a novel observation, it is intended to acknowledge the differing assumptions critics and readers, both then and now, bring to his work. As a black male author in a predominantly white literary world, Dunbar had to navigate the racial presumptions of editors and readers alike in order to succeed. To be financially successful while maintaining his political and aesthetic stance, Dunbar had to create literary strategies capable of critiquing the social, political, economic, and cultural problems facing African Americans that, at the same time, would not explicitly confront white readers' internalized beliefs regarding blacks. As Gene Jarrett argues in Deans and Truants (2007), Dunbar's experience with the racial realism of William Dean Howells led to Dunbar's experimentation with literary naturalism.1 And it is this experimentation that informs Dunbar's naturalist depictions of white determinism. While I am broadly concerned with Dunbar's larger naturalist strategies, my specific interest is in the naturalist strategies Dunbar employs to represent the interactions between African American and white characters, strategies intended to subvert socially sanctioned white assumptions regarding African Americans.2 In this sense, Dunbar's experimentation with naturalist strategies early in his career—in the short fiction he was writing at the same time as his early novels—allows him to present white determinism as a corrective to the biological assumptions perpetuated by white literary naturalism.

In The Racial Contract (1997), Charles Mills points out that in regards to the logic of race, "[w]e are blinded to realities that we should see, taking for granted as natural what are in fact human-created structures" (123), a blindness contingent upon a collective white complicity with established [End Page 7] systems of power. Whether overt or accidental, this complicity foregrounds supposedly race-less or universal claims to human identity that leave existing racial hierarchies silently intact. Mills goes on to note that "[t]he hypocrisy of the racial polity is most transparent to its victims" (110). For Dunbar, this hypocrisy reflects the logic of white determinism. As Mills explains, one of the virtues of the "Racial Contract" is that "it simultaneously recognizes the reality of race (causal power, theoretical centrality) and demystifies race (positing race as constructed). Historically, the most influential theories of race have themselves been racist, varieties of more or less sophisticated biological determinism" (125). Mills's choice to invoke Ralph Ellison's "inner eye" as a means to understand American racism and the racial contract is illuminating, in that Ellison's literary trope draws upon the same logic of white determinism Dunbar creates to confront the white social control affecting black existence and well-being.3 Dunbar's naturalism presents white social control as a deterministic influence on black life. White naturalism traditionally subordinates human agency to the laws of nature, portraying social practices and institutions as environmentally or biologically necessary. Dunbar's black naturalism, on the other hand, focuses on the discrepancy between white and black social agency, even when both groups may be unaware of that difference. Dunbar's white determinism thus differs from the determinism of white naturalism; while whites believe that black cultural and racial difference is based on biological difference, that difference is a product of the systemic discrepancies that exist between whites and blacks, including but not limited to white agency and autonomy, entrenched white political power, and white economic control.

In Dunbar's fiction, white determinism affects both white and black characters. For whites, it conditions their interactions with blacks, in that they are governed by the illusions they have internalized. The white gaze functions as a force of socialization, and white claims regarding African Americans, even when incorrect, wield cultural power when accepted and carried forward. Furthermore, there are almost no repercussions for internalizing these incorrect assumptions, specifically as this view most often reflects the normative status quo. White cultural institutions like the press, the legal system, the political system, and even the church contribute to reproducing this mindset, making it appear as natural to white subjects...


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pp. 7-38
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