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Dialogue of Cultures
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:
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.
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:
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,
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,
"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,
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. ...
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;
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
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,
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:
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,
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
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
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":
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,
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
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',
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.
My cot was down by a cypress grove,
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