Paul Laurence Dunbar
The Struggle for an
American Classical Renaissance
by Philip Valenti
This article originally appeared in the July 2, 2001
New Federalist American Almanac section
Racism in America can be overcome, only when the right to a Classical humanist form of education is enjoyed by every child.
This revolutionary thesis of Lyndon LaRouche,1 in contradiction to the cultural-relativist, "politically correct" assaults on the achievements of European civilization, is demonstrated by the struggle for a cultural renaissance in post-Civil War America, led by former slaves and the children and grandchildren of slaves, and including the great American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), statesman Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) and his violinist grandson Joseph, and their allies, such as the legendary citizen-scientists Orville and Wilbur Wright.
In that same period, the revival of the so-called Negro Spirituals, in the work of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and in the collaboration of African-American vocalist Harry Burleigh and that student of Beethoven and Brahms, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorák, began the struggle for an American Classical music tradition, later continued in the work of Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, William Warfield, Sylvia Olden Lee and many others, which LaRouche's political movement is committed to advancing today.
Dunbar, the son of former slaves, his personal library filled with the works of Friedrich Schiller, Shakespeare, Robert Burns and other "Dead, White European Males," who became the acknowledged "poet laureate of the Negro people," powerfully wielded the poetical weapons of metaphor and humor, spending his short life in a fight to save the soul of his nation. He did so, in the midst of a holocaust of political assassinations, lynchings and Jim Crow, the violent rise back to power of the Southern slavocracy in alliance with Wall Street, through the long-corrupt Democratic Party, and the increasingly corrupted Republicans.
In this light, the depredations of the Ku Klux Klan and its sympathizers, the racist "Southern Strategy" of Richard Nixon and the so-called "New Democrats," which lately brought us George W. Bush and Al Gore, are seen in their true evil significance as an assault upon the humanity of all Americans, and upon the possibility that our degenerate "popular culture" might be overthrown by an American cultural renaissance.
Recognizing that today's degraded popular entertainments imprison our fellow-citizens in a condition of mental slavery worse than the brutal physical slavery of the ante-bellum South, let us enlist Paul Laurence Dunbar, on the occasion of the 129th anniversary of his birth, as an active ally and co-worker in our struggle today.
A Son of Former Slaves
Paul Dunbar's parents had both been slaves in Kentucky. His father, Joshua, had escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad, but returned to enlist in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiments during the Civil War. He "taught himself reading, and after long hours spent at his trade, which was that of a plasterer, he read universal history and biography."2
Joshua married Matilda Murphy, a widow with two children from her previous marriage, in 1871, in Dayton, Ohio.
Dunbar's first biographer, Lida Keck Wiggins, who knew the poet and his mother personally, wrote that as a slave-child in Lexington, Kentucky, Matilda had absorbed a love for literature from her master, who allowed her to listen "as he read aloud to his wife from the great writers. Especially was she delighted when he read poetry; the music of it, the rhythm and the imagery fired her imagination and left an unfading impression upon her mind.... During her girlhood, and even after she went to Dayton, Ohio, and married her first husband, Mr. Murphy, she still loved to hear verses read and was a very capable judge of the merits of a metrical composition. After her marriage with Joshua Dunbar, she learned from school children, whom she coaxed into her humble home, the coveted letters of the alphabet."
Joshua and Matilda had two children, a girl, Elizabeth, who died at two years of age, and Paul Laurence, who was born on June 27, 1872. The couple separated in 1874, and Joshua lived in the Soldiers Home until his death in 1884, while Matilda struggled to support her family as a washerwoman.
Paul, the only black student in his class at Dayton's Central High School, became a member of the debating society, president of the literary Philomathean Society, editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, and class poet. His "report cards," preserved on microfilm at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus, show that Paul was indeed the beneficiary of a form of Classical education, probably directly modelled on the Humboldt curriculum of the original Central High School in Philadelphia.
His studies included classes in Greek and Latin, and at least one semester devoted to the Latin poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid.. Other classes in the humanities, such as English Literature and Civil Government, were complemented by rigorous scientific work, including classes in Physiology, Chemistry, Physics, Algebra, and even Psychology. (Paul received grades of "excellent" for his "deportment in and around school," while his "habits of application" ranged from "excellent" to "tolerable" to "very poor.")
A cursory examination of the personal library he left behind in his study in his mother's house in Dayton, reveals a mind immersed in the Classics, and a love for the greatest intellectual achievements of mankind. There are the Poetical Works of Schiller, and a nearby textbook of Elementary German, as well as a Greek-English Lexicon. There is a volume of the Beauties of Shakespeare, along with Harper's Encyclopedia of British and American Poetry, and a book titled, The Intellectual Development of Europe.
Paul also read universal history, both British and American versions, with volumes of Gibbons, Carlyle, and Washington Irving on his bookshelves. There are the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and a book called The Story of the Jubilee Singers; one large volume stands out from all the others, titled simply Robert Burns.
Paul wrote the lyrics to his class song, sung at the June 16, 1891 commencement exercises at Dayton's Grand Opera House, and he graduated with honors, but soon accepted the only employment available to him: He went to work as an elevator operator at the Callahan Building in downtown Dayton, for a wage of $4 a week.
One of the knowledgeable tour guides at the Dunbar House related that Paul was "discovered" while at work in his elevator, by a "society lady," Helen Reeves Conover, who asked him what book he was reading. It was Shakespeare.
Soon after, one of his former high school teachers secured an invitation for Paul to address the Dayton meeting of the Western Association of Writers, scheduled to take place, coincidentally, on June 27, 1892, his 20th birthday. He composed a poetical Welcome Address for the occasion, and made such a great impression in his recitation that Dr. James Newton Matthews and two other leading members of the Association sought him out at the Callahan Building the next day.
"They found him at his post of duty, and by his side in the elevator were a late copy of the Century Magazine, a lexicon, a scratch tablet, and a pencil. Dunbar, writing of this meeting said:
' "My embarrassment was terrible. In the midst of a sentence, perhaps, a ring would come from the top of the building for an elevator, and I would have to excuse myself and run up after passengers.' "
After Dr. Matthews' favorable review of Dunbar's poetry was "published in many of the leading newspapers in America and England," Paul determined to publish a book. He collected 56 of his poems that his mother kept safely in a large box in her kitchen, and paid a visit to one of his former Central High School classmates, the proprietor of a printshop in Dayton. This was Orville Wright, who co-owned the business with his older brother, Wilbur.
The Wright Brothers
The Wright family was led by its patriarch, Bishop Milton Wright, of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, an evangelical protestant denomination, founded in Pennsylvania in 1767. The church had added an anti-slavery clause to its official doctrine in 1821. Bishop Wright encouraged his children to be independent thinkers, and maintained a well-stocked home library to advance that purpose.When Bishop's wife died in 1889, the Wright family became a patron of Matilda Dunbar's laundry. The young geniuses and classmates Orville and Paul became the best of friends, and were to reveal themselves as political soul-mates as well. Biographies of the Wright brothers invariably mention the four lines of graffiti scribbled by Dunbar on the walls of their printing establishment, revealing both the young poet's esteem for his friend, and early mastery of the Midwest dialect:
Orville Wright is out of sight
In the printing business.
No other mind is half so bright
As his'n is.
By the year of Dunbar's visit to the Wright printshop, the brothers had started a new bicycle business across the streetPaul's own Wright-built bicycle is on display at the Dunbar House today. Soon after, the brothers decided to tackle the age-old problem of powered flight, and began their famous experiments at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in October 1900. When it became clear that their experimental results contradicted the teachings of the authoritative aeronautical textbooks of the day, their Classical education prepared them to throw out the textbooks, and proceed with confidence, on their own powers of reason.
"[W]e saw that the calculations upon which all flying machines had been based were unreliable," Orville wrote in the September 1908 Century magazine, "and that all were simply groping in the dark. Having set out with absolute faith in the existing scientific data, we were driven to doubt one thing after another, till finally, after two years of experiment, we cast it all aside, and decided to rely entirely upon our own investigations."
Orville described the brothers' surprise at discovering that there was no theory of the screw propeller, and that "the marine engineers possessed only empirical formulas, and the exact action of the screw-propeller, after a century of use, was still very obscure." Since they had no time, or inclination, for trial-and-error, they decided to develop their own theoretical solution of the problem. Orville's description of this process reads like the kind of debate over hypotheses, and solutions to paradoxes, typical of a Classical humanist classroom:
"What at first seemed a simple problem became more complex the longer we studied it. With the machine moving forward, the air flying backward, the propellers turning sideways, and nothing standing still, it seemed impossible to find a starting-point from which to trace the various simultaneous reactions. Contemplation of it was confusing. After long arguments, we often found ourselves in the ludicrous position of each having been converted to the other's side, with no more agreement than when the discussion began. It was not till several months had passed, and every phase of the problem had been thrashed over and over, that the various reactions began to untangle themselves."
The 'Dayton Tattler'
The political collaboration of the Wright brothers and Dunbar had begun by no later than 1889, soon after the Republican Benjamin Harrison had defeated Grover Cleveland for the Presidency. The first election of Democrat Cleveland in 1884, had been greeted with horror and alarm by African-Americans and others who still revered the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, since the Democratic Party was then identified completely with the resurgent power of the old slavocracy, and Cleveland was the first Democrat elected President since the Civil War. Dunbar contributed articles to the Wright brothers' newspaper, the West Side News, the first issue of which reported on the approaching inauguration of Harrison, and featured historical profiles of Lincoln, Gen. William T. Sherman, and Benjamin Franklin.
In 1890, the young political organizers resolved upon a bold stroke, but one they believed essential to the cause of republicanism: They would publish a weekly newspaper, the Dayton Tattler, directed to the city's African-American population, with 18-year-old Paul L. Dunbar as editor. In his first editorial, dated Dec. 13, 1890, Dunbar made it clear that he was at war with "paid democracy," i.e., the Democratic Party's tactic of buying black votes.
"Dayton with her sixty thousand inhabitants, among which are numbered five thousand colored people, has, for a long time, demanded a paper, representative of the energy and enterprise of our citizens. It is this long-felt want which the Tattler now aspires to fill. Her mission shall be to encourage and assist the enterprises of the city, to give our young people a field in which to exercise their literary talents, to champion the cause of right, and to espouse the principles of honest republicanism. The desire which is the guiding star of our existence is that some word may be dropped in our columns, which shall reach the hearts of our colored voters and snatch them from the brink of the yawning chasm of paid democracy."
"We all have a desire to look pretty large in the eyes of the world," Dunbar wrote in his Dec. 20 editorial, "so just keep in mind that the very littlest of little persons, a badly dwarfed dwarf of humanity, is the man who sells his vote."
The Tattler lasted only six issues, but Dunbar continued to write, and it was the poetry of this period that he gathered up and brought to the Wright printshop. Since Orville had no capacity to bind a book, he sent Paul to his father's United Brethren publishing house in Dayton, where the business manager lent the poet $125 to print his collection of verses, which he called Oak and Ivy. Paul repaid his debt by selling his book for $1 a copy to elevator riders, and his fame spread, certainly with help of Bishop Wright's church networks, since one of his first invitations to recite his poems came from a prominent church family in Richmond, Indiana, headquarters of the Wright family some years earlier. On Oct. 18, 1892, he recited his poems at a concert of the Fisk Jubilee Singers before an enthusiastic audience of over 600 people at the Dayton YMCA hall.
Soon after, invitations for recitations arrived from Detroit and Toledo, newspaper reviews of his Oak and Ivy appeared, and, in 1893, of Frederick Douglass wrote: "I regard Paul Dunbar as the most promising young colored man in America." That year, Dunbar travelled to Chicago to join Douglass and other African-American leaders for a major international political and cultural counterattack against the resurgent Confederate power. The battleground was the World's Columbian Exposition, called to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's voyage to the New World.
Paul described his first meeting with the great man in a letter to his mother (June 6, 1893): "The old man was just finishing dinner; he got up and came tottering into the room. 'And this is Paul Dunbar' he said, shaking hands and patting me on the shoulder. 'Paul, how do you do? I've been knowing you for some time, and you're one of my boys.' He said so much Ma that I must wait until I am with you before I can tell you all. He had me read to him my 'Ode to Ethiopia,' and he himself read to us, with much spirit, 'The Ol' Tunes,' with which he seemed delighted. I gave him a book, although he insisted on buying it. Well, he said, if you give me this, I will buy others. So I expect to sell him 2 or 3 anyhow. ...
"I forgot to say that Mr. Douglass invited me to visit him at his home in Washington City next winter and stay a while. He says, 'It would do my heart good just to have you there and take care of you. I have got one fiddler there (his son) and now I want a poet; it would do me good to have you up there in my old study just working away at your poetry.' "
The "fiddler" was actually Douglass's grandson Joseph, a Classical violinist, who would soon join the fray in Chicago; one biographer writes that Duouglass was, himself, "in his prime, no mean performer on the violin."
Encouraged by his future first wife Anna Murray, Frederick Douglass had begun his own study of the violin in Baltimore back in 1838, just before his escape from slavery. Living in Rochester, New York before the Civil War, he complemented his political agitation against slavery by inviting local children to his home to hear him sing and play his instrument. Discussing his 1886-87 European tour in his third autobiography, Douglass described at length his awe at seeing Paganini's violin displayed in the Museum of Genoa, Italy and compared it, in its emotional associations, to "the pen with which Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation," and "the sword worn by Washington through the War of the Revolution."
"Owing perhaps to my love of music and of the violin in particular," Douglass wrote, "I would have given more for that old violin of wood, horsehair, and catgut than for any one of the long line of pictures I saw before me. I desired it on account of the man who had played upon it, the man who revealed its powers and possibilities as they were never known before. This was his old violin, his favorite instrument, the companion of his toils and triumphs, the solace of his private hours, the minister to his soul in his battles with sin and sorrow. It had delighted thousands. Men had listened to it with admiration and wonder. It had filled the largest halls of Europe with a concord of sweet sounds. It had even stirred the dull hearts of courts, kings, and princes, and revealed to them their kinship to common mortals as perhaps had been done by no other instrument. It was with some difficultly that I moved away from this old violin of Paganini."
The Return of 'Jim Crow'
The Exposition took place under the gloomiest of political circumstances, since Cleveland and the Democrats had returned to power in the election of 1892. The Supreme Court had already declared the 1875 Civil Rights Act unconstitutional in 1883, and was on its way to legalizing Jim Crow segregation in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case. Over 1,000 black men, women, and children were lynched by bloodthirsty mobs from 1882-1892, mostly in the South.
Every effort was made to exclude blacks from any leadership or planning role in the Exposition, and proposals for special exhibits on the progress of African-Americans since Emancipation were rejected. Although some leaders called for a boycott of the Exposition, Douglass and his allies were determined to use the occasion to expose these injustices to the nation and the world, to challenge the American people "to live up to their own Constitution," and to defy the racists and terrorists with a display of black achievement.
Douglass, who had been appointed Minister to the Republic of Haiti by President Harrison, was asked by the President Florvil Hyppolite of Haiti to represent his country in Chicago. Douglass used the Haitian Pavilion as a base of operations, and hired Dunbar as an assistant.
Douglass's major weapon in Chicago was an 81-page pamphlet, "The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition," published and largely written by Ida B. Wells (1862-1930; a leading African-American publisher; leader of the fight against lynching; one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The original plan was to publish the pamphlet in English, French, German and Spanish, targetting a mass distribution among foreign visitors to create an international scandal over the crimes against blacks in America. In the end, because of financial constraints, only the preface was translated into French and German.
The first chapter, written by Douglass, traced the perversion of American society to the institution of slavery, and the persistence of its corrupting influence.
"The Americans are a great and magnanimous people and this great exposition adds greatly to their honor and renown," he concluded, "but in the pride of their success, they have cause for repentance as well as complaisance, and for shame as well as glory, and hence we send forth this volume to be read of all men."
Wells' chapter on lynch law included horrific accounts of some of the 1,000 lynchings of blacks in the previous decade, in many ways more terrible than later accounts of Nazi atrocities, since these American crimes were committed openly and brazenly, with no attempt to conceal them from the nation and the world. Yet that chapter was followed by one on the accomplishments of African-Americans in the 30 years since Emancipation, including in business, science, medicine, mechanical inventions, and the arts.
After listing 75 patents granted by the U.S. government to African-Americans, including 15 to "the real McCoy," i.e., "Elijah McCoy, of Detroit, Michigan, for his inventions in Steam Engine and Railway Lubricating Cups," this chapter discussed the achievements of painters E.N. Bannister of Providence, Rhode Island, and H.O. Tanner of Philadelphia, sculptor Edmonia Lewis, and coloratura soprano Sissieretta Jones, known as "Black Patti," after the great Italian soprano of the day, Adelina Patti. It goes on to report that "Mr. Tanner thinks the picturesque in our own race life can be best interpreted by one of ourselves, and will exhibit this winter a picture representing one phase of Negro life. He has called it 'The First Lesson' [known today as 'The Banjo Lesson']. As a study it is regarded by art critics as the best thing he has done. Mr. Tanner is not yet thirty-five years of age."
After referencing the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who "have made the music of the American Negro known throughout the world," this section concluded with the following statement of Antonin Dvorák, who visited America in that period to promote an American school of Classical music, through the creation of a National Conservatory:
"I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composers to be developed in the United States. When I first came here last year I was impressed with this idea, and it has developed into a settled conviction. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are American. I would like to trace out the individual authorship of the Negro melodies, for it would throw a great deal of light upon the question I am deeply interested in at present.
"These are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them. All of the great musicians have borrowed from the songs of the common people. Beethoven's most charming scherzo is based upon what might now be considered a skillfully handled Negro melody. I have myself gone to the simple, half-forgotten tunes of the Bohemian peasants for hints in my most serious work. Only in this way can a musician express the true sentiment of his people. He gets into touch with the common humanity of his country.
"In the Negro melodies of America, I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that sets itself to any mood or any purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes, and they move sentiment in him. They appeal to his imagination because of their associations.
"When I was in England, one of the ablest musical critics in London complained to me that there was no distinctively English school of music, nothing that appealed particularly to the British mind and heart. I replied to him that the composers of England had turned their backs upon the fine melodies of Ireland and Scotland, instead of making them the essence of an English school. It is a great pity that English musicians have not profited out of this rich store. Somehow, the old Irish and Scotch ballads have not seized upon or appealed to them. I hope it will not be so in this country, and I intend to do all in my power to call attention to these treasures of melody which you have.
"Among my pupils in the National Conservatory of Music I have discovered strong talents. There is one young man upon whom I am building strong expectations. His compositions are based upon Negro melodies, and I have encouraged him in this direction. The other members in the composition class seem to think that it is not in good taste to get ideas from the old plantation songs, but they are wrong, and I have tried to impress upon their minds the fact that the greatest composers have not considered it beneath their dignity to go to the humble folk songs for motifs.
"I did not come to America to interpret Beethoven or Wagner for the public. That is not my work, and I would not waste any time on it. I came to discover what young Americans had in them and help them to express it. When the Negro minstrels are here again I intend to take my young composers with me and have them comment on the melodies."
Dunbar's 'Negro Melodies'
Dunbar's dialect poem, "The 'Ol Tunes," which a delighted Frederick Douglass had read "with much spirit" at his first meeting with the poet, celebrated the spiritual grandeur of those "Negro melodies," compared to "yer modern choir-singin', That you think so awful rich":
The boys 'ud always lead us,
An' the girls 'ud all chime in
Till the sweetness o' the singin'
Robbed the list'nin' soul o' sin;
An' I used to tell the parson
'T was as good to sing as pray,
When the people sung the ol' tunes
In the ol'-fashioned way.
How I long ag'in to hear 'em
Pourin' forth from soul to soul,
With the treble high an' meller,
An' the bass's mighty roll;
But the times is very diff'rent,
An' the music heerd to-day
Ain't the singin' o' the ol' tunes
In the ol'-fashioned way.
Little screechin' by a woman,
Little squawkin' by a man,
Then the organ's twiddle-twaddle,
Jest the empty space to span,
An' ef you should even think it,
'T is n't proper fur to say
That you want to hear the ol' tunes 3
Our poet's beloved "When Malindy Sings," composed in a different, more Southern, dialect, similarly celebrates the power of the humble Spiritual to move the soul:
She jes' spreads huh mouf and hollahs,
"Come to Jesus," twell you hyeah
Sinnahs' tremblin' steps and voices,
Timid-lak a-drawin' neah;
Den she tu'ns to "Rock of Ages,"
Simply to de cross she clings,
An' you fin' yo' teahs a-drappin'
When Malindy sings.
Who dat says dat humble praises
Wif de Master nevah counts?
Heish yo' mouf, I hyeah dat music,
Ez hit rises up an' mounts
Floatin' by de hills an' valleys,
Way above dis buryin' sod,
Ez hit makes its way in glory
To de very gates of God!
Oh, hit's sweetah dan de music
Of an edicated band;
An' hits dearah dan de battle's
Song o' triumph in de lan'.
It seems holier dan evenin'
When de solemn chu'ch bell rings,
Ez I sit an' calmly listen
When Malindy sings.
Towsah, stop dat ba'kin, hyeah me!
Mandy, mek dat chile keep still;
Don't you hyeah de echoes callin'
F'om de valley to de hill?
Let me listen, I can hyeah it,
Th'oo de bresh of angels' wings,
Sof' an' sweet, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,"
Ez Malindy sings.
"A Banjo Song," spoken in the voice of a slave, explains the power of this music to strengthen the humanity of a people degraded to the condition of chattel. The slave explains how, at evening, he takes his old banjo from the wall:Den my fam'ly gadders roun' me
In de fadin' o' de light,
Ez I strike de strings to try 'em
Ef dey all is tuned er-right.
An' it seems we're so nigh heaben
We kin hyeah de angels sing
When de music o' dat banjo
Sets my cabin all er-ring.
An' my wife an' all de othahs,
Male an' female, small an' big,
Even up to gray-haired granny,
Seem jes' boun' to do a jig;
'Twell I change de style o' music,
Change de movement an' de time,
An' de ringin' little banjo
Plays an ol' hea't-feelin' hime.
An' somehow my th'oat gits choky,
An' a lump keeps tryin' to rise
Lak it wan'ed to ketch de water
Dat was flowin' to my eyes;
An' I feel dat I could sorter
Knock de socks clean off o' sin
Ez I hyeah my po' ol' granny
Wif huh tremblin' voice jine in.
Oh, de music o' de banjo,
Quick an' deb'lish, solemn, slow,
Is de greates' joy an' solace
Dat a weary slave kin know!
So jes' let me hyeah it ringin',
Dough de chune be po' an' rough,
It's a pleasure; an' de pleasures
O' dis life is few enough.
August 25, 1893 was "Colored American Day" at the exposition, and the 2,500 people gathered in Festival Hall for the occasion, were to witness an historic display of some among the greatest achievements of Classical culture and statecraft in America up to that time. The Fisk Jubilee Singers sang the "Negro Melodies" so beloved of Dvorák, Joseph Douglass performed Classical virtuoso pieces on his violin, and Paul Laurence Dunbar moved the people and challenged his country with his poetry. One account reports that Dunbar included "The Colored Soldiers" in his repertoire that day, "a song heroic" of the black soldiers of the Union army, which, in its conclusion, flung the gauntlet down at the feet of his fellow citizens:
They were comrades then and brothers,
Are they more or less today?
They were good to stop a bullet
And to front the fearful fray.
They were citizens and soldiers,
When rebellion raised its head;
And the traits that made them worthy,
Ah! Those virtues are not dead.
They have shared your nightly vigils,
They have shared your daily toil;
And their blood with yours commingling
Has enriched the Southern soil.
They have slept and marched and suffered
'Neath the same dark skies as you,
They have met as fierce a foeman,
And have been as brave and true.
And their deeds shall find a record
In the registry of Fame;
For their blood has cleansed completely
Every blot of Slavery's shame.
So all honor and all glory
To those noble sons of Ham
The gallant colored soldiers
Who fought for Uncle Sam!
Douglass's speech that day set a lofty tone of dignity and courage. "Rejoicing in the liberty we have already secured," Douglass said, "and congratulating the nation upon the recognition given our rights in the fundamental law of the republic, we shall nevertheless fully expose and denounce the injustice, persecution, lawless violence and lynch law to which as a class we are still subjected. ...
"We fought for your country. We ask that we be treated as well as those who fought against your country. We love your country. We ask that you treat us as well as you do those who love but a part of it.
"Men talk of the Negro problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution.
"A statesman has recently discovered that the only solution of this Negro problem is the removal of the Negro to Africa. I say to this man, that we Negroes have made up our minds to stay just where we are. We intend that the American people shall learn the great lesson of the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God from our presence among them."
At Douglass's death in 1895, Dunbar reflected upon his character as a fearless champion of humanity and his people, and poetically asserted a determination to continue the great man's work:
And he was no soft-tongued apologist;
He spoke straightforward, fearlessly uncowed;
The sunlight of his truth dispelled the mist,
And set in bold relief each dark hued cloud;
To sin and crime he gave their proper hue,
And hurled at evil what was evil's due.
Through good and ill report he cleaved his way
Right onward, with his face set towards the heights,
Nor feared to face the foeman's dread array,
The lash of scorn, the sting of petty spites.
He dared the lightning in the lightning's track,
And answered thunder with his thunder back. ...
We weep for him, but we have touched his hand,
And felt the magic of his presence nigh,
The current that he set throughout the land,
The kindling spirit of his battle-cry.
O'er all that holds us we shall triumph yet,
And place our banner where his hopes were set!
Oh, Douglass, thou hast passed beyond the shore,
But still thy voice is ringing o'er the gale!
Thou'st taught thy race how high her hopes may soar,
And bade her seek the heights, nor faint, nor fail.
She will not fail, she heeds thy stirring cry,
She knows thy guardian spirit will be nigh,
And, rising from beneath the chast'ning rod,
She stretches out her bleeding hands to God!
A Fiddler and a Poet
Dunbar fulfilled Douglass's wish to have both a fiddler and poet under his roof in Washington, D.C., after he secured a position as assistant in the Library of Congress in 1897, with the help of the Illinois Lincoln Republican and former Civil War officer Robert G. Ingersoll. Paul's papers on microfilm at the Ohio Historical Society include numerous programs of recitals in the nation's capital, featuring Joseph Douglass and himself.
One program, dated Tuesday Evening, July 9th 1901, is headlined, "DUNBAR & DOUGLASS: The Greatest Recital of the Season. Paul Laurence Dunbar, the world's Greatest Author, Poet and Dialect Writer. Joseph H. Douglass, leading Violin Soloist of the Colored Race. Mr. Douglass will lead Foreman's Celebrated Orchestra." A handsome photograph of Douglass playing, is captioned, "The Most Finished and Soul-Inspiring Artist of His Race," and a Chicago Herald review is quoted: "There are but few violinists in the country that possess a finer quality of instruments than Mr. Douglass, and his rendering of the classics is nothing less than masterful and inspiring."
The program of another recital in Washington, this one at the 15th St. Presbyterian Church on Dec. 16, 1901, features Dunbar reciting his poetry, Joseph Douglass performing several virtuoso violin solos, and Miss Beatrice Warwick at the piano, performing solos, as well as accompanying a vocalist, Miss Lola Johnson. A note informs the concert-goer that "the words of all songs on this program are by Mr. Dunbar," since Paul had begun collaborating with African-American composers, who put many of his poems to music. (Displays at the Dunbar house show that Paul tried his hand at composing as well.)
Other evidence among Paul's papers on microfilm show that he continued his practice of immersing himself in Classical culture, attending recitations from Shakespeare's Othello and Macbeth, and performances of chamber music works by Brahms and Mozart. Despite a tragic, failed marriage, and the onset of the tuberculosis that would soon prove fatal, Dunbar composed hundreds of poems, plays, songs, newspaper articles and short stories, as well as completing four novels in the space of the few short years remaining to him.
In an 1895 letter to his future wife, Alice Ruth Moore, Dunbar summarized his philosophy of story-writing, and of life itself:
"I believe that characters in fiction should be what men and women are in real life, the embodiment of a principle or idea.
"There is no individuality apart from an idea. Every character who moves across the pages of a story is, to my mind, and a very humble mind it is, only an idea, incarnate."
Accordingly, Paul was inspired by his knowledge of universal history, and by confidence in his own developed powers of reason, to shun "popular opinion" in favor of fighting for the Right. His poem, "Right's Security," echoes Lincoln's famous dictum, "Right Makes Might":
Right arms and armors, too, that man
Who will not compromise with wrong;
Though single, he must front the throng,
And wage the battle hard and long.
Minorities, since time began,
Have shown the better side of man;
And often in the lists of Time
One man has made a cause sublime!
In "The Warrior's Prayer," Paul prays to God, not for favors and personal security, but "Strength for the fight!" His militant "Religion" and passionate love of humanity is summarized in the poem of that name:
I am no priest of crooks nor creeds,
For human wants and human needs
Are more to me than prophets' deeds;
And human tears and human cares
Affect me more than human prayers.
Go, cease your wail, lugubrious saint!
You fret high Heaven with your plaint.
Is this the "Christian's joy" you paint?
Is this the Christian's boasted bliss?
Avails your faith no more than this?
Take up your arms, come out with me,
Let Heav'n alone; humanity
Needs more and Heaven less from thee.
With pity for mankind look 'round;
Help them to rise and Heaven is found.
Dunbar's continuing, crucial political role is demonstrated by the invitation which he received, and accepted, in March 1901, to be commissioned a colonel and ride in an honored position in the inaugural parade of William McKinley, the last Lincoln Republican to hold the office of the Presidency. After McKinley's assassination later that year, even his successor, the Anglophile, pro-Confederate Teddy Roosevelt, felt compelled to solicit the poet's favor.
In his Lyrics of Love and Laughter, published in 1903, Dunbar again turned to Frederick Douglass for strength and inspiration:
Ah, Douglass, we have fall'n on evil days,
Such as thou, not even thou didst know,
When thee, the eyes of that harsh long ago
Saw, salient, at the cross of devious ways,
And all the country heard thee with amaze.
Not ended then, the passionate ebb and flow,
The awful tide that battled to and fro;
We ride amid a tempest of dispraise.
Now, when the waves of swift dissension swarm,
And Honor, the strong pilot, lieth stark,
Oh, for thy voice high-sounding o'er the storm,
For thy strong arm to guide the shivering bark,
The blast-defying power of thy form,
To give us comfort through the lonely dark.
At Tuskegee Institute
In this period, Dunbar allied himself with W.E.B. Dubois against Booker T. Washington, founder of the famed Tuskegee Institute, who argued, among other things, that blacks should concentrate on mastering practical job skills, rather than immediately aspiring to a Classical education. Yet, Paul's lectures and recitations at Tuskegee were so popular with the students, that Washington tried to recruit him to teach literature there! In December 1902, Washington asked Paul to compose the words of a school hymn for Tuskegee, insisting that he feature the school's "industrial idea," but Paul included the contested line, "Thou gavest the heav'n blessed power to see,/ The worth of our minds and our hands," placing mental power ahead of mere manual labor.
Dunbar went on to join Dubois in a crusade against lynching, and contributed a most powerful poetical weapon in that struggle, "The Haunted Oak."
Oh, the judge, he wore a mask of black,
And the doctor one of white,
And the minister, with his oldest son,
Was curiously bedight.
Oh, foolish man, why weep you now?
'T'is but a little space,
And the time will come when these shall dread
The mem'ry of your face.
I feel the rope against my bark,
And the weight of him in my grain,
I feel in the throe of his final woe
The touch of my own last pain.
And never more shall leaves come forth
On a bough that bears the ban;
I am burned with dread,
I am dried and dead,
From the curse of a guiltless man.
And ever the judge rides by, rides by,
And goes to hunt the deer,
And ever another rides his soul
In the guise of a mortal fear.
And ever the man he rides me hard,
And never a night stays he;
For I feel his curse as a haunted bough,
On the trunk of a haunted tree.
In 1900, Dunbar was invited by his friend and fellow poet James Weldon Johnson, to read his poetry in Florida, and found that his art had spread far and wide among the common people there. "Down here one finds my poems recited everywhere," Paul wrote in a letter to a friend. "Young men help themselves through school by speaking them, and the schools help their own funds by sending readers out with them to the winter hotels."
"I know you will swell with anger or 'bust' with uncontrollable mirth, when I tell you I am teaching elocution," Paul wrote merrily to his wife from Jacksonville. "Just as soon as the reading was done, I had the chance for six pupils, but I could only take two, & these only because my friend [illegible] who is at the head of the Baptist Academy here, wants to take them north with him on his trip with the quartet. They have been murdering my work, and so I took them in hand as a matter of self-protection. I wish I could also get my hands on Ferris of the many degrees, who is also down here doing my work to death. The Rev. Silas X. Floyd is also reciting it, and they say he does fairly well except for the monkey-shines he cuts up. Never before have I fallen into such a nest of Dunbareans."4
Throughout it all, Paul remained steadfastly and passionately committed to advancing a Classical Renaissance in America, as the indispensable means of reversing the neo-Confederate dark age settling over the nation.
His "Prometheus," for example, is a poetical challenge to the artists of the day, castigating them for their hedonism and smallness of mind, as compared to his great hero, the English republican Percy Bysshe Shelley:
Prometheus stole from Heaven the sacred fire
And swept to earth with it o'er land and sea.
He lit the vestal flames of poesy,
Content, for this, to brave celestial ire.
Wroth were the gods, and with eternal hate
Pursued the fearless one who ravished Heaven
That earth might hold in fee the perfect leaven
To lift men's souls above their low estate.
But judge you now, when poets wield the pen,
Think you not well the wrong has been repaired?
'T was all in vain that ill Prometheus fared:
The fire has been returned to Heaven again!
We have no singers like the ones whose note
Gave challenge to the noblest warbler's song.
We have no voice so mellow, sweet, and strong
As that which broke from Shelley's golden throat.
The measure of our songs is our desires:
We tinkle where old poets used to storm.
We lack their substance tho' we keep their form:
We strum our banjo-strings and call them lyres.
Robert Burns and 'Dialect' Poems
Much ink has been spilt debating Dunbar's dialect poems, with some condemning them, as some condemn the Spirituals, as a pandering to "white America's" degraded image of the African-American. Yet, paradoxically, most such critics rightly revere Frederick Douglass as a fiery, uncompromising champion of his peoplethe same "delighted" Douglass who recited a Dunbar dialect poem "with much spirit," and considered the poet "the most promising young colored man in America." Either they, or Douglass, are wrong.
More to the point is the apt comparison of Dunbar to Robert Burns, the republican poet of Scotland, who poignantly conveyed the most profound concepts of human dignity and the brotherhood of man, in the language of the common people. One of Burns' "dialect" poems, set to music, has become the "national anthem" of his beloved nation:
Is there for honest poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that?
The coward slave, we pass him by
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Our toils obscure, an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The man's the gowd for a' that.
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a' that?
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine
A man's a man for a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that.
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.
Ye see yon birkie ca'd 'a lord,'
Wha' struts, an' stares, an' a' that?
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a cuif for a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that,
The man o' independent mind,
He looks an' laughs at a' that.
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that!
But an honest man's aboon his might
Guid faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities, an' a' that,
The pith o' sense an' pride o' worth
Are higher rank than a' that.
Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a' that)
That Sense and Worth o'er a' the earth
Shall bear the gree an' a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's comin yet for a' that,
That man to man the world o'er
Shall brithers be for a' that.
Compare Burn's republican sentiments, to those expressed by the American "common man" in Dunbar's "My Sort O' Man," who declares, "I don't believe in 'ristercrats," and proclaims that the pursuit of happiness is "one of earth's most blessed things/ They can't monopolize":
But I jedge no man by his clothes,
Nor gentleman nor tramp;
The man that wears the finest suit
May be the biggest scamp,
An' he whose limbs air clad in rags
That make a mournful sight,
In life's great battle may have proved
A hero in the fight.
I don't believe in 'ristercrats;
I like the honest tan
That lies upon the healthful cheek
An' speaks the honest man;
I like to grasp the brawny hand
That labor's lips have kissed,
For he who has not labored here
Life's greatest pride has missed:
The pride to feel that yore own strength
Has cleaved fur you the way
To heights to which you were not born,
But struggled day by day.
What tho' the thousands sneer an' scoff,
An' scorn yore humble birth?
Kings are but puppets; you are king
By right o' royal worth.
The man who simply sits an' waits
Fur good to come along,
Ain't worth the breath that one would take
To tell him he is wrong.
Fur good ain't flowin' round this world
Fur every fool to sup;
You've got to put yore see-ers on,
An' go an' hunt it up.
Good goes with honesty, I say,
To honor an' to bless;
To rich an' poor alike it brings
A wealth o' happiness.
The 'ristercrats ain't got it all,
Fur much to their su'prise,
That's one of earth's most blessed things
They can't monopolize.
'Dis Howlin' Wildaness'
For those committed to organizing a Classical Renaissance in America today, who may faint in the face of the degradation of our fellow-citizens and the seeming power of our enemies, Paul Laurence Dunbar directly addresses us through the voice of an inspired slave preacher, in his "An Ante-Bellum Sermon."
"We is gathahed hyeah, my brothahs,/ In dis howlin' wildaness," the preacher begins, speaking of today's popular culture, "Fu' to speak some words of comfo't/ To each othah in distress." He goes on to explain the story of Moses, whom the Lord commands to "go tell Pher'oh/ Fu' to let dem chillun go." After the Lord successfully carries through on His threats against a stubborn Pharoah "to empty down on Egypt/ All de vials of my powah," our preacher exhorts us to remain confident,
Fu' de Lawd will he'p his chillun,
You kin trust him evah time.
An' yo' enemies may 'sail you
In de back an' in de front; But de Lawd is all aroun' you,
Fu' to ba' de battle's brunt.
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.
An' de lan' shall hyeah his thundah,
Lak a blas' f'om Gab'el's ho'n,
Fu' de Lawd of hosts is mighty
When he girds his ahmor on.
Our preacher is well aware that there may be enemy spies in our midst, so he ironically assures his listeners that he is "still a-preachin' ancient," when he speaks of the overthrow of the slave-holding Pharoah, and that he is merely "talkin' 'bout ouah freedom/ in a Bibleistic way." But he also knows that some of us are full of fear, and sometimes think of deserting to the enemy side, so he addresses our cowardice and insists that we must think for ourselves:
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 Scriptuah,
I'se a-handin' 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.
Finally, we must agree, that "de Lawd's intention,/ Evah sence de worl' began,/ Was dat His almighty freedom/ Should belong to evah man." The Lord will once again send some Moses perhaps one of us, perhaps all of us to set his children free.
But de Moses is a-comin',
An' he's comin', suah an' fas'.
We kin hyeah his feet a-trompin',
We kin hyeah his trumpit blas'.
But I want to wa'n you people,
Don't you git too brigity;
An' don't you git to braggin'
'Bout dese things, you wait an' see.
But when Moses wif his powah
Comes an' set us chillun free,
We will praise de gracious Mastah
Dat has gin us liberty;
An' we'll shout ouah halleluyahs,
On dat mighty reck'nin' day,
When we'se reco'nised ez citiz'
Huh uh! Chillun, let us pray!
1. Lyndon LaRouche, "The Tragedy of U.S. Education: Shrunken Heads in America Today," EIR,April 20, 2001, Vol. 28, No. 15.
2. Lida Keck Wiggins, Life and Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar; Winston-Derek, Nashville, Tenn.; 1992 (All quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from Wiggins.)
3. Some of the poems quoted are excerpts from longer works.
4. Jay Martin and Gossie H. Hudson, editors, The Paul Laurence Dunbar Reader; Dodd, Mead & Co., New York; 1975.
Related Pages The Lesson
My cot was down by a cypress grove,
And I sat by my window the whole night long,
And heard well up from the deep dark wood
A mocking-bird's passionate song.
And I thought of myself so sad and lone,
And my life's cold winter that knew no spring;
Of my mind so weary and sick and wild,
Of my heart too sad to sing.
But e'en as I listened the mock-bird's song,
A thought stole into my saddened heart,
And I said, "I can cheer some other soul
By a carol's simple art."
For oft from the darkness of hearts and lives
Come songs that brim with joy and light,
As out of the gloom of the cypress grove
The mocking-bird sings at night.
So I sang a lay for a brother's ear
In a strain to sooth his bleeding heart,
And he smiled at the sound of my voice and lyre,
Though mine was a feeble art.
But at his smile I smiled in turn,
And into my soul there came a ray:
In trying to sooth another's woes
Mine own had passed away.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
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