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The Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar & White Liberals—The Line Between Good And Evil

 

Recently I read the Paul Laurence Dunbar novel The Sport of the Gods. This short book, published in 1901 as Mr. Dunbar was dying of tuberculosis, is about a black family that has moved from the South to Harlem. As you might suppose, it is a bleak tale. 

Mr. Dunbar, who died at age 34 in 1906, was once termed by Booker T. Washington as the “Poet Laureate” of the Negro Race.    

Mr. Dunbar was known as a “dialect poet.” He added black “dialect” to his poems. This was not “proper” English. Mr. Dunbar did this to gain acceptance as a poet. Mr. Dunbar did not always want to write in that form, but found it difficult to find equal praise for his poems in standard English.

This is what happens when your work is defined by people, who, whatever they might claim, do not at heart care about you as a human being and do not care about your aspirations in life.

Sometimes in life you have to work very hard to find your audience. 

Click here to read and hear Mr. Dunbar’s poetry in various forms. This link is provided by the University of Dayton. Dayton, Ohio was the hometown of the poet.     

In Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow–The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore by Eleanor Alexander, Mr. Dunbar is shown as an abusive man towards his wife, the poet Alice Ruth Moore. Ms. Alexander is a professor at Georgia Tech.

This book was reviewed in The New York Times in 2002 by Professor Paula Giddings who teaches at Smith College.  

From the review—“… Dunbar, whose alcoholism was compounded by what appears to have been a bipolar disorder that eeirly mirrored the society around him. The result was effusive expressions of sentiment, melancholia or violent outbursts—all of which found their way to Alice….Dunbar’s drinking and ranting got worse and even spilled over to public acts of humiliation and violence. In January 1902, four years before his death…he beat Alice within an inch of her life. She left him and, ignoring his ardent entreaties for reconciliation, never saw him again.”

As I read The Sport of the Gods, I often recalled the book review I had read five years earlier. Whatever the stresses in his life, and they were terrible stresses I’m certain, what could justify Mr. Dunbar beating up a woman? 

Are the literary merits of The Sport of the Gods and other works by Mr. Dunbar obscured or diminished by the way Mr. Dunbar behaved? 

While reading the book I also thought about how racial conditions played a large part in the anger of Mr. Dunbar went largely unaddressed for all the years of the New Deal and beyond. This was many years after Mr. Dunbar’s death. These conditions went on and on and still go on in many respects in our cities.

Here is information from the Library of Congress about racial discrimination in New Deal programs.

Most of the white liberals I would have likely voted for had I lived in that time where content enough to look the other way at the aparthied of the American South. FDR wanted Southern votes. So did Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy. ( Which is not to say that Mr. Truman or Mr. Kennedy did not make some gains in this area.)

Do these facts diminish the liberal accomplishments of the New Deal era and its aftermath?

Personally, I’d say yes. People’s lives were wasted living in an unfair country while people who claimed to care about fairness and justice did nothing or next-to-nothing.     

And while Mr. Dunbar’s work stands on its own, I can’t deny I was aware as I read Sport that Mr. Dunbar was guilty of the some of the same abuse he was writing about.

That said, we must never lose sight of the humanity and the frailty that is at the core of each individual in the world. I’ve yet to meet a person with totally clean hands.   

December 6, 2007 Posted by | Books, Poetry, Political History, Relationships | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment