Centennial conference re-evaluates legacy of writer, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar


Paul Laurence Dunbar

When he died of tuberculosis in 1906 at the age of 33, African American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar—author of hundreds of poems and more than 100 short stories as well as novels and journalism—was one of the best-known and most beloved American writers. But by the 1950s, Dunbar's work was both increasingly ignored and mired in controversy. Critics especially excoriated his once hugely popular dialect poems as politically compromised, "self-hating" and embarrassing to black America.

Now, a century after his death, Dunbar's reputation is being recalibrated once again. Last Friday and Saturday, more than 200 literary scholars, historians, poets and others gathered here from around the world for the Paul Laurence Dunbar Centennial Conference, which organizers called the first major reevaluation of the author's legacy in three decades.

In more than 30 presentations addressing the political and cultural landscape in the post-Reconstruction United States and Dunbar's little-explored writing as well as his more popular poems, a "startlingly complex" picture of the writer emerged, said conference co-organizer Shelley Fisher Fishkin, professor of English and the director of the Program in American Studies.

The conference "unlocked some of the limited roles in which Dunbar was cast by past literary historians" by recognizing the author as a progenitor of all that was modern about the 20th century, Fishkin said. Scholars "made a clear case for Dunbar as an absolutely central figure in American literature and modernism," she added. "It's hard to imagine any histories of American literature written in the 21st century not giving Dunbar his due."

The conference, the first of this size held at Stanford on African American literature, was organized by Fishkin; Gavin Jones, associate professor of English; and Arnold Rampersad, the Sara Hart Kimball Professor in the Humanities and senior associate dean for the humanities. Meta DuEwa Jones, an assistant professor of English at the University of Texas-Austin, and Richard Yarborough, an associate professor of English at the University of California-Los Angeles, who both earned doctorates at Stanford, also were members of the organizing committee. Papers from the conference will be published in a special issue of the African American Review in 2007.

In a talk that opened the conference, poet Joanne Braxton, the Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Professor at the College of William and Mary, described Dunbar's artistic and political heritage from his parents, both former slaves, and confronted what she called "dismissive myths and misreadings" of Dunbar's work. Critics of Dunbar's failure to forthrightly address such questions as the unfair treatment of black soldiers in the Civil War (Dunbar's father served in the Union Army) were missing what alternatively could be read as Dunbar's "strategic silences and negotiations with [a 19th-century] audience that in large part didn't want to know too much," she said.

Dunbar, born in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio, came into manhood in "one of the gloomiest periods in African American history," the era of Jim Crow and the Plessy v. Ferguson "separate but equal" Supreme Court decision, said Joanne Gabbin, professor of English at James Madison University. Racism initially had propelled Dunbar, the "shining star" of his high school class, not to college but to a job as an elevator operator, she said. (Dunbar, who sold copies of his first book of poetry to passengers in the elevator, eventually would become the first African American writer to make a living from his writing.)

Although Dunbar's writing has been criticized for seeming to blithely ignore the hardships of slavery and racism, "I believe his poetic sensibilities led him to subtle uses of irony and veiled allusions, which steadily made incursions into predominant stereotypes of the day," Gabbin said. The verses the poet himself would refer to as "jingles in a broken tongue," were "for him, portraits of those who survived the devastating institution of slavery with their humanity intact," she said. Dunbar, "despite the tragic circumstances of his life, succeeded in demonstrating a poetic genius never before seen on this side of the Atlantic," Gabbin said.

A 'double-voiced discourse'Several scholars considered Dunbar's skillful and varied use of dialect by arguing for multilayered readings of Dunbar's writings that reveal them to be more subversive than traditionally has been thought. African Americans have had to use code to express themselves and employ a "double-voiced discourse," said Gavin Jones, who described Dunbar as "a wily manipulator of the conventions" and a "subtle overturner of racist stereotypes" in his book Strange Talk: The Politics of Dialect Literature in Gilded Age America (1999).

Dunbar the writer is in danger of being lost beneath "the perennial preoccupations of race," said novelist David Bradley, who with Fishkin edited a collection of Dunbar's works, The Sport of the Gods and Other Essential Writings (Modern Library, 2005).

"Maybe when Dunbar wrote a love poem he was writing about love," suggested Bradley, who is African American. In what is perhaps Dunbar's most famous poem, "We Wear The Mask," there is no indication in the text about the race of the writer, he added. "Dunbar applies to white people as well as to black people. Everybody who works for a living gets up in the morning and puts on a mask."

To continue to view Dunbar primarily through the lens of race in the 21st century is tantamount to clinging to Newtonian physics in the age of Einstein, he said. "There's a new paradigm. We know that race is a construct of culture."

The question for the 21st century is how far differences of race will continue to shape—and inevitably limit—our thinking about all artifacts of human civilization, culture, art and literature, including the writing of Paul Laurence Dunbar, he said.

It would be a mistake to pigeonhole Dunbar, agreed Fishkin. "Dunbar is central to understanding African American literary traditions, but he also is a figure we need to come to terms with to understand American literature and America's contribution to world literature."