Poetry Corner–Paul Laurence Dunbar: Changing the Joke to Slip the Yoke

Editors’ note:  We are re-blogging this post from Sharon McCoy in honor of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s birthday: June 27th.  

Last year we  posted the poem “An Ante-bellum Sermon” from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life. This week’s poetry entry discusses the historical, literary, and cultural context of that collection and its core humor.  The bold red titles below indicate live links to those songsheets, audio files, or websites.

Dunbar can be difficult in many ways.  His dialect can seem heavy or (to some ears) stereotypical, especially once you know that he wrote for performers who appeared in blackface.  We often resist humor in poetry, but blackface offers special challenges that make it difficult for many to want to take Dunbar seriously as a poet.  Songs such as Evah Darkey is a King and Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd can be hard to stomach in the twenty-first century, and even his serious, beautiful dialect pieces such as  On Emancipation Day are packaged with lurid period sheet-music covers that wrench credibility.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

None of this was news to Dunbar.  But the era he was writing in offered special challenges in any case.  He was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1872, the son of former slaves, just three years after his home state sent a resolution to Congress refusing to ratify the 15th Amendment (prohibiting denial of suffrage on racial grounds).  Ohio ultimately relented, withdrew the resolution, and ratified the Amendment, but only when it was clear that it would become law in any case.  Emotions still ran strong and tensions high in the state whose antebellum “black laws” had rivaled Louisiana’s for their severity, and it is not surprising that a President from this tension-filled state, Rutherford B. Hayes, facilitated the end of federal Reconstruction.  Growing up African American in Ohio required a sense of humor.

Even after publishing two books of poetry before the age of 25, Dunbar still had to work as an elevator operator in order to survive, but during that time of economic depression, any job was a blessing.  And his poetry had captured the attention of the “dean” of American literature, William Dean Howells.  When Howells agreed in 1896 to write the introduction to Dunbar’s Lyrics of Lowly Life, the young poet must have been ecstatic.

But his sense of humor also came in handy.  We’ll look at Howells’s introduction and Dunbar’s response in a moment, because Dunbar’s choices are as funny as they are full of chutzpah. But first, we need to talk a little about the particular climate of the U.S. at that time. 

America of the 1890s, as a whole, wanted to forget about slavery and its aftermath.  As the 1890 census shows, Blacks made up only 11.9% of the population, the lowest yet at that point in U.S. history, and whites of the day wanted to be free of what was characterized then as “the Negro Problem.”  Further, the deep depression of 1892 was the worst that America had suffered yet, even in a century that seemed to bring a new economic crisis with every decade:  500 banks and more than 15,000 businesses failed, leaving 2.5 million newly unemployed hitting the streets to look for work.  And by the 1890s, new dangers had also arisen for African Americans.  During this era, lynching increasingly became huge public spectacle, ritualized communal acts of social murder.  No longer expressions of vigilante justice, lynching became marked by torture and the collection of “trophies” from its victims.  In 1889, the number of Blacks lynched exceeded the number of whites for the first time.  In 1890, the number of African American men and women lynched was at least eight times that of whites, and by 1900, it was almost twelve times as many.

Stereotypes of African Americans in this era became ever more grotesque and dehumanizing:  caricatures that could feel no pain temporarily assuaged the conscience of an economically crippled and suffering nation.   But the blackface caricatures of the “coon age” also emphasize that Blacks were not helpless victims or easy targets:  the characters of this era wield sharp razors and use them at the drop of a hat.  There had been “coon” songs for over twenty years, but it was an 1896 song by African American composer Ernest Hogan, All Coons Look Alike To Me, that gives the era its name, because its release by an early recording label greatly increased its exposure and popularity.  [You can hear an audio recording and look at its lurid songsheet cover using these links.]  Ironically, the song’s original title was “All Pimps Look Alike to Me” and had been written for the women in the whorehouse where Hogan sang and played piano (one of the few venues open to African American performers of the period), but the recording industry thought that the word “pimps” was too offensive for the general public.  Hogan regretted the compromise his entire life, for the “coon” images themselves became a new, crippling yoke.  Slipping that yoke became a central project of the twentieth century.

Okay, so I know this is pretty heavy stuff for a humor blog, but this is the situation and these are the caricatures that Dunbar had to work with and still find the heart to be both profound and funny.  To understand the humor that comes out of pain, we have to have a firm grasp on that pain.

As we read Howells’s introduction for Dunbar’s Lyrics of Lowly Life, we see how much Howells was a product of his time.  With little real exposure to actual African American people, Howells was deeply influenced by the stereotypes of the day.  Nonetheless, his enthusiastic albeit condescending endorsement helped give Dunbar the title “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race.”  In his introduction, Howells emphasizes Dunbar’s racial purity and reiterates that Dunbar is “without admixture of white blood” (xiv), claiming that he is “the only man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel the negro [sic] life aesthetically and express it lyrically” (xvi).   He proclaims that the African American race “had attained civilization” in Dunbar and his poetry, and Howells “permit[s himself] the imaginative prophecy that the hostilities and the prejudices which had so long constrained his race were destined to vanish in the arts” (xvii).

Quite a tall order, to be the person in whom an entire race “attain[s] civilization.”

But while Dunbar writes freely in a variety of voices — from an almost British-sounding formality to free-wheeling, conversational Southern-ish dialect — Howells argues that Dunbar’s real poetry is specifically and solely in those dialect pieces, the same dialect pieces that later readers often find uncomfortably close to blackface minstrelsy.

Howells argues that “there is a precious difference of temperament between the races which it would be a great pity ever to lose.”  And he claims further that Dunbar’s power comes from his humor, but humor of a specific kind.  It is what Howells perceives of as Dunbar’s “finely ironical perception of the negro’s [sic] limitations, with a tenderness for them which I think so very rare as to be quite new.  I should say, perhaps, that it was this humorous quality which Mr. Dunbar had added to our literature”  (Howells xviii).

The “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race,” therefore, should be acclaimed because he is aware of, sympathizes with, and pokes fun at “negro limitations.”  Did I mention that Dunbar needed a sense of humor?

Of the poems Dunbar writes in what Howells calls “literary English,” the standard written English of a  consciously poetic tradition, Howells says, “Some of these I thought very good, and even more than very good, but not distinctively his contribution to the body of American poetry.”  The dialect pieces, however, Howells believes are something special.  They are “divinations and reports of what passes in the hearts and minds of a lowly people whose poetry had hitherto been inarticulately expressed in music, but now finds, for the first time in our tongue, literary interpretation of a very artistic completeness” (xix).  The “inarticulate” musical expression Howells refers to here is the Spirituals, rather than the “coon age” songs, which he would have hardly considered “poetry.” But clearly his interpretation of Dunbar and his value to American letters (and the value of the Spirituals themselves) is tied strongly to the songs of the “coon age.”

Okay, so again, I know.  Not funny.  And maybe a little uncomfortable, especially if you value the Spirituals as artistic and religious expression, if you like William Dean Howells, or if Dunbar’s Ohio born-and-bred interpretation of Southern dialect seems too close to “coon and buffoon” for your taste.  But wait for it.  The punch line really is coming.

Howells concludes by telling us that “the contents of this book are wholly of [Dunbar’s] own choosing, and I do not know how much or how little he may have preferred poems in literary English” (xix).

As it turns out, Dunbar’s choices “change the joke and slip the yoke,” for the opening poem of Lyrics of Lowly Life is a virtual cakewalk of literary English, a virtuoso send-up that mocks as it invokes, entitled “Ere Sleep Comes Down to Soothe the Weary Eyes.”  The second poem, again in “literary” and standard poetic English, is called “The Poet and His Song.”  The third, is a “Retort” and love poem that begins “’Thou art a fool,’ said my head to my heart.’”  And the fourth, finally, is one of the dialect pieces that Howells felt constituted “distinctively” Dunbar’s “contribution to the body of American poetry.”

It is called “Accountability.”


I’d love to end there—it’s a great punchline.  And pretty gutsy for a 24-year-old man taking on the Dean of American letters at the same time he truly values the Dean’s approbation and endorsement.

But if you know the poem or if you go read the poem, you will know that the story cannot end here, for while this ironic dialect piece talks about recognizing that God made each of us unique, “Accountability” also ends with a pure, coon-age stereotype that rings with irony for those willing to see:

When you come to think about it, how it’s all
planned out it ‘s splendid.
Nuthin’s done er evah happens, ‘dout hit’s
somefin dat’s intended.

Don’t keer what you does, you has to, an’ hit
sholy beats the dickens, —
Viney, go put on de kettle, I got one o’ mastah’s
chickens.  (lines 25-32)

Lyrics of Lowly Life is planned out “splendid,” to be sure, and if taking “one o’ mastah’s / chickens” comes with a price, you do what you “has to, an’ hit  / sholy beats the dickens.”

© Sharon McCoy, 28 September 2011, updated 10 October 2011.


Special thanks to:

The Library of Congress American Memory collection and Performing Arts Encyclopedia Sound Recordings; African-American Sheet Music 1850-1920, Hay Library, Brown University; Historic American Sheet Music Collection 1850-1920, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library,Duke University; Lester S. Levy Collection, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University; Paul Laurence Dunbar, University of Dayton, which contains numerous performances by poet, scholar, playwright and professor emeritus Herbert Woodward Martin; Ralph Ellison’s “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” from Shadow and Act; and of course, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Lyrics of Lowly Life.

10 responses

  1. Thank you very much for your thoughtful discussion of Dunbar’s use of dialect in his poetry.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I’d love to know what you found most interesting or thought-provoking.

  2. Thank you for giving me a chance to explain my interest. Perhaps I should have done so when I first commented on your article. I write children’s books, and I have a new one under contract to Candlewick. This is a combination biography/anthology of Dunbar. We are still doing edits and debating exactly which poems I will include.

    In the book, I touch on the subject of Dunbar’s use of dialect in his poetry. Knowing that for many people this is a problematic subject, and that, in addition, there are those who think writers shouldn’t try to write “outside their culture,” I am interested in learning as much as I can about current critical thought concerning the dialect poems.

    I am letting myself in for scrutiny, I know, by my choice of “voice” for the book. The book reads as if an old Black woman is telling youngsters about the poet. (I’m half-qualified, perhaps, since though I’m not Black, I am old.) In my defense I have to say that I didn’t choose the voice as much as it chose me. I had been researching Dunbar for over a year, but I couldn’t get a handle on how to approach the material. (This is my first foray into non-fiction.) Then one afternoon, I “heard” these words: “You never heard of the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar? Child, where’ve you been? I got to have a word with you.”

    This is probably more than you needed or wanted to know, but I really appreciated your taking time to respond to my comment. I am nervous about this story–I want to do Dunbar
    justice, and I hope the book will make his name more familiar, especially to young children, so I’m following up on anything I can learn.

    Thank you again.

    1. Dear Sally,

      Sorry that it took so long for me to get back to you; I had to take my son to a pain specialist out of town.

      Thanks for writing to let me know about your work and interest. It sounds like a fascinating project, and I’m a firm believer that we must honor the voices that choose us, no matter what. I’d be interested in hearing more about the project, actually–so no worries about saying too much!

      I’m not specifically a Dunbar scholar (though he will be a prominent part of my next book, I’m still working to finish one on an earlier period), but I am happy to share what I know so far–

      I’m sure you know the 1999 book Jump Back, Honey for children (I’ve used it at read-alouds), and Herbert Woodward Martin’s performances (there’s a link above). There are other folks, such as Bobby Norfolk and Margaret Walker, who’ve done lovely performances of Dunbar’s poems.

      In terms of response by writers and scholars today, if you haven’t already, you would want to look at the Summer 2007 issue of African American Review, an issue devoted to Dunbar and his legacy. You might also want to take a look at Gene Jarrett’s article from Nineteenth Century Literature (March 2005), as his formulation of “minstrel realism” has become something of a touchstone in this area. The critical reception of Dunbar’s dialect pieces runs the gamut from celebratory to condemnatory, with modern scholars and readers seeing more of the trickster figure in the aspects that previous readers condemned.

      As a writer, I think that if you honor the voices you hear, the voices that you cannot escape, then you cannot go wrong. Honoring them, of course, means finding those pieces of common ground, understanding specific pressures the character would face and never letting them slip from your sight–and always remaining aware of the problems you might have in bridging the inevitable gaps.

      Personally, I put post-its around my computer, read many different books, articles, magazines, and letters or narratives from the era, from people like my characters and from the people who might influence them (negatively or positively), write notes at the top of my manuscript reminding myself of my blind spots and the pain I might cause, and play music that takes me there and reminds me of what they faced, and when I am ready, I share the drafts freely with those who would have different gaps than mine and different resonances with the characters and who will be brutally honest.

      I think, too, that your awareness of the fact that you will face special and perhaps antagonistic scrutiny is probably a big asset in making sure that you get the voice and the story right. While there is no real comparison, it is the closest a white woman of our era can come to understanding the “double consciousness” that W. E. B. Du Bois articulated so eloquently, and that Dunbar and your character would live intimately (and that far too, too many still live intimately).

      Don’t let go of it, and stay nervous. As they say in theatre — I think you can use that.


      PS–If you haven’t tired of my voice already, please feel free to email me directly. I’d love to hear more about your project as it develops and am looking forward to looking up your other books.

  3. […] But sometimes subtlety is hard to see or to teach, and critics–both black and white–have found fault in Chesnutt (and with Paul Laurence Dunbar) for their relationship to the plantation tradition.  To some, Chesnutt’s decision to not directly attack or subvert the tradition might reinforce its ideology.  I would caution against a belief that humor much satirize, attack, or assault in order to be effective.  (See Sharon McCoy’s take on Dunbar here) […]

  4. I really have to say I really enjoy your site, the way you write is wonderful!

  5. […] or “Happy Birthday, Muhammed Ali“; or my “Painfully Funny“; “Poetry Corner–Paul Laurence Dunbar:  Changing the Joke to Slip the Yoke“; “Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?“; or my pieces on Mark Twain, which tend to come […]

  6. […] Poetry Corner–Paul Laurence Dunbar: Changing the Joke to Slip the Yoke […]

  7. […] Tomorrow is the birthday of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Take a minute to read his fine poem below and then click over to Sharon McCoy’s excellent discussion of his poetry: https://humorinamerica.wordpress.com/2011/06/27/poetry-corner-paul-laurence-dunbar-changing-the-joke-… […]

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