- Chains of Emancipation:Place Attachment and the Great Northern Migration in Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods
Tis an old deserted homesteadOn the outskirts of the town,Where the roof is all moss-covered,And the walls are tumbling down;But around that little cottageDo my brightest mem'ries cling,For 'twas there I spent the momentsOf my youth,—life's happy spring.—Dunbar, "The Old Homestead" (Collected 283)
The October 1901 edition of The Southern Workman extols Paul Laurence Dunbar's creative talents in his fourth novel, The Sport of the Gods (1901), stating that Dunbar includes "some bits of sarcasm that would not have been unworthy of Dickens, and shows on the whole a promise for the future of which no young novel writer need be ashamed" ("Book Reviews" 557). That said, The Sport of the Gods was destined to be not only Dunbar's most successful novel but also his last and his only novel to focus almost exclusively on African-American characters. Often read as a text that reveals the cultural exigencies of African-American freedom, the political, cultural, and social identity of which was still forming during Dunbar's life, The Sport of the Gods follows the downfall of the Hamilton family. The parents, Berry and Fannie, are among "the many slaves who upon their accession to freedom had not left the South, but had wandered from place to place in their own beloved section, waiting, working, and struggling to rise with its rehabilitated fortunes" (2). For their children, Joe and Kitty, the "two doting parents" (6) created an environment that was "pleasant and carefully [End Page 150] guarded" (4). As the novel opens, Berry and Fannie, servant and housekeeper, respectively, to Maurice Oakley and his wife, are living with their children in "the little servant's cottage in the yard" (2), blissfully unaware of any imminent misfortune. However, as a decidedly naturalist work of fiction, the story, and thus the Hamilton's "stream of years" flowing for a time "pleasantly and peacefully" (3), appear destined to take a turn for the worst when Berry heads out one morning "cheerily to his work," without any "shadow of impending disaster depress[ing] his spirits" (35).
Although Berry and Fannie are loyal to a fault, when Maurice Oakley's younger brother Frank implies that Berry has stolen five hundred dollars from him, Maurice is quick to place blame on "honest, sensible" Berry, the "pink of good servants" (48) and abruptly states, "'Nothing angers me so much as being deceived by the man I have helped and trusted'" (31). Ironically, "the man" who has deceived him is Oakley's own brother, Frank, who carelessly gambled away the money intended for his trip abroad. After Oakley and his wife agree that "Hamilton must be made an example of " (32), Berry is arrested, "unbefriended" by the town's blacks and whites, and the remaining Hamiltons are forced out of their home and southern community amid the din of "envious and sneering comments" (50) that rages about them. As the narrator observes, since the "strong influence of slavery" was still ingrained in the minds and imaginations of the black members of the community, "with one accord they turned away from one of their own kind upon whom had been set the ban of the white people's displeasure" (49-50). Berry is sentenced to hard labor for an undisclosed period of time, while Fannie and her children are obliged to migrate to New York City, where they confront an unfamiliar and unsympathetic environment.
The novel's exposure of an urban landscape has been treated as the thematic foundation for many theoretical readings of Dunbar's narrative, in which the moral complexities that underpin freedom and equality are undermined by the Hamiltons' expulsion from, and subsequent return to, the South. For instance, Marlon B. Ross contends that the liberal environment of New York City "only increases the seductiveness of moral/sexual license without effecting any concomitant political, economic, or social reform" (145), and Bridget Harris Tsemo believes the Hamiltons' return to the South at the end of the novel should be read as...