Use of “Negro Dialect” in Poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson
This Hub presents a discussion about how a style of language called "Negro dialect" was used by Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson, two celebrated African-American poets. Even though both men wrote poetry using this style, each used it for different reasons.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Born in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio, Paul Laurence Dunbar was among the first African-American writers to receive national attention and recognition. As a child, Dunbar attended predominantly white schools. When he was in high school, even though he was the only black student in his class, he became class president and class poet. Before graduating from high school, he worked as editor of the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper targeting blacks that was published by two of his friends/classmates—Orville and Wilbur Wright. In fact, many believe it was the failure of the short-lived newspaper published by the soon-to-be famous Wright brothers, where Dunbar worked as editor, that impressed upon the aspiring poet/writer that he would have to reach beyond the economically and educationally challenged black communities of the nation to further his ambitions.
Realizing that he would have to target and reach white readers, after high school Dunbar continued to pursue his dreams. During the times in which he lived, the majority of the American reading public was composed of whites who demanded works exploiting the language and lifestyle stereotypes of black Americans. To capture the attention and interest of this audience, Dunbar often wrote in dialect, and it was his use of it, ultimately, that won him recognition and notoriety as a poet. Still, Dunbar was never satisfied with his reputation as a dialect poet.
Whites had developed an interest in the works of black writers during the early nineteenth century. Their interest eventually led to widespread exploitation of black lifestyle and language stereotypes, something that was disheartening to many aspiring black American writers. That meant, like other black poets, Dunbar was challenged to write what was acceptable to whites while also trying to maintain some kind of truth and dignity for and about the black race.
For Dunbar, the use of dialect was a prerequisite for becoming published and recognized as a poet. Early black poets like Dunbar lived, dreamed and wrote in two worlds—their own and that of the dominant white society. In many ways, the black poet was an outsider in his own world. He was physically a part of America, yet a mental and spiritual outcast: An enigma, to say the least. Although his major language was literary English, to the largely white reading public of his time, Dunbar was preeminently a poet of Negro dialect.
Dunbar took his writing very seriously, because it was his overwhelming desire to do something to uplift his race. Since dialect was considered light verse, he was unhappy with the public’s preference for it over the poems he wrote using literary English. Regardless of Dunbar’s feelings towards his dialect poetry, he managed to make many “message” statements regarding his pride and hope for his race through the use of dialect poetry. One example of the pride Dunbar felt for his race can be seen in the following excerpt from his much celebrated poem, “When Melindy Sings.”
“G’way an’ quit dat noise, Miss Lucy—
Put dat music book away;
What’s de use to keep on tryin’?
Ef you practice twell you’re gray,
You can’t sta’t no notes a-flyin’
Lak de ones dat rants and rings
F’om de kitchen to de big woods
When Melindy sings.
In this poem, Dunbar is paying tribute to the natural gift of song given to many blacks. In "When Melindy Sings," he seems to be advising “Miss Lucy,” someone who is most likely the white mistress of the house, that no amount of practice or study could ever equip her with the kind of natural talent possessed by "Melindy," most likely a servant for Miss Lucy. Miss Lucy quite possibly admired the singing abilities of her servant. As the poem continues, Dunbar's presentation makes it clear that Miss Lucy, who apparently wanted to learn to sing, had simply not been blessed with the same God given talent Melindy possessed:
You ain’t got de nachel o’gans
Fu’ to make de soun’ come right,
You ain’t got de tu’ns an’ twistin’s
Fu’ to make it sweet an’ light.
Tell you one thing now, Miss Lucy
An’ I’m tellin’ you fu’ true,
When hit comes to raal right singin’,
‘Tain’t no easy thing to do.
In the next excerpt, Dunbar's not-so-subtle reasoning emphasized the difference between learned singing abilities and the natural talent for song that many blacks were born with:
Easy ‘nough fu’ folks to hollah,
Lookin’ at de lines an’ dots,
When dey ain’t no one kin sence it,
An’ de chune comes in, in spots;
But fu’ real melojous music,
Dat jes’ strikes yo’ hea’t and clings,
Jes’ you stan’ and’ listen wif me
When Melindy sings.
Although many critics claim that there was little substance to Dunbar’s dialect poetry, some of it, when examined closely, was more than simplistic minstrel-stage shows. Although his dialect poetry did not deal directly and openly with the hostile climate toward his race, in some instances he managed to express, with astounding honesty, the indifference of the nation toward the black race as second-class citizens. Perhaps his use of dialect, the chosen language of white readers, was really a brilliant way to use the form to express words which, otherwise, might not have been published. For example, in “Speakin’ at de Cou’thouse,” Dunbar wrote:
Dey been speakin’ at de cou’t-house, An’ laws-a-massy me, ‘T was de beatness kin’ o’ doin’s Dat evah I did see. Of cose I had to be dah In de middle o’ de crowd, An’ I hallohed wid de othahs, Wen de speakah riz and bowed. I was kind o’ disapp’inted At de smallness of de man, Case I ‘d allus pictered great folks On a mo’ expansive plan; But I t’ought I could respect him An’ tek in de wo’ds he said, Fu’ dey sho was somp’n knowin’ In de bald spot on his haid. But hit did seem so’t o’ funny Aftah waitin’ fu’ a week Dat de people kep’ on shoutin’ So de man des could n’t speak; De ho’ns dey blared a little, Den dey let loose on de drums,—. Some one toll me dey was playin’ “See de conkerin’ hero comes.”
“Well,” says I, “you all is white folks, But you ’s sutny actin’ queer, What’s de use of heroes comin’ Ef dey cain’t talk w’en dey’s here?” Aftah while dey let him open, An’ dat man he waded in, An’ he fit de wahs all ovah Winnin’ victeries lak sin. Wen he come down to de present, Den he made de feathahs fly. He des waded in on money, An’ he played de ta’iff high. An’ he said de colah question, Hit was ovah, solved, an’ done, Dat de dahky was his brothah, Evah blessed mothah’s son. Well he settled all de trouble Dat’s been pesterin’ de lan’, Den he set down mid de cheerin’ An’ de playin’ of de ban’. I was feelin’ moughty happy ‘Twell I hyeahed somebody speak, “Well, dat’s his side of de bus’ness, But you wait for Jones nex’ week.”
Although certainly not “protest” poetry, Dunbar does manage to convey skepticism of blacks towards the promises of white politicians of the time. This is skillful use of dialect—a medium which does not lend itself to unleashed anger because of the gentle and colorful nature of the language. Since dialect is inflexible, this could be a reason that Dunbar felt trapped, like a caged bird, because he was expected to use it often in his work.
Dunbar felt forced to write behind the mask of a language which he knew could not begin to express the social unrest and anxiety of his people. It is unfortunate that he felt compelled to mask his true feelings and much of his brilliance in order to make a living as a writer/poet. Still, his authentic voice and emotions managed to steal through in some of his dialect poetry and were blatantly unvarnished in poems he wrote in literary English, such as in "We Wear the Mask."
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
Had Dunbar lived longer than 34 years, perhaps he would have become a more courageous writer, able to speak out against racial injustice with a more candid and confident voice. Instead, he set the stage for the writers of the Harlem Renaissance--a period recognized worldwide as a time of celebration and blossoming of African American culture (circa 1917-1937). Dunbar's work gave artists of this period something to challenge. If they were ashamed of his dialect poetry, as many of them were, or of his "tiptoeing" cautiously around issues related to racism and injustice, then they were challenged to create a style which would convey the many emotions, languages, struggles, talent, challenges, suffering, and creativity that, in their time, was black America. Social conventions forced Dunbar to wear the mask, but still he paved the way for the “unmasking” of the feelings of black poets and writers of later years.
James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson and Paul Laurence Dunbar, as writers, were contemporaries based on the fact that they were born less than a year apart. Even though these men lived much of their lives during the same time period, perhaps the most important difference between them, when it comes to each man's perceptions/perspectives as a writer/poet, was the fact that one was born and raised in the North, and the other in the South.
James Weldon Johnson was born and came of age in Jacksonville, Florida. During his lifetime, black Americans in the South were just beginning to demand civil rights and equal treatment under the law. Johnson was educated by blacks--first by his mother who was a teacher in the Jacksonville public school system for many years, and after that he attended black grade schools, and Atlanta University (he later attended Columbia University). In addition, Johnson's maternal grandfather was a citizen of the Bahamas who had served in government, in the House of Assembly, for 30 years. There is no doubt Johnson was greatly influenced by his ancestry, upbringing, and educational environment, and that meant his perspectives, outlook on, and approach to life--and to the writing of poetry and prose, was different from that of Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Johnson did some of his writing during the Harlem Renaissance when black writers were “in vogue” in America and around the world. Writers of the Renaissance era were not strictly confined to what would “amuse” the white reading public. Artists of literature, music, theater, and the visual arts were embracing the period as their time to break free and to recreate the images of blacks honestly and truthfully, and to step away from feeling compelled and confined to live behind the masks of stereotypes.
Therefore, unlike Dunbar, Johnson used Negro dialect as a creative choice. His first book of poetry, Fifty Years and Other Poems, was published twenty-four years after Dunbar’s first work, Majors and Minors. Although Fifty Years includes sixteen poems in dialect, Johnson explained in a later work, The Book of American Negro Poetry, why he felt the dialect tradition had come to an end:
“. . . Negro dialect is at present a medium that is not capable of giving expression to the varied conditions of Negro life in America, and much less is it capable of giving the fullest interpretation of Negro character and psychology. This is no indictment against the dialect as dialect, but against the mold of conventions in which Negro dialect in the United States had been set . . . .”
It was the “molds of conventions” described by Johnson that Dunbar had struggled with during his writing career. During the time of the Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson felt free to use dialect by choice as an alternate style of creative expression, rather than a mask to hide oppression and despair.
“Sence You Went Away,” lyrics posted below, is one of Johnson’s dialect poems written in the Dunbar tradition. Johnson's use of dialect in this poem captures the raw emotions and feelings of a black man separated from his loved one:
Seems lak to me de stars don't shine so bright,
Seems lak to me de sun done loss his light,
Seems lak to me der's nothin' goin' right,
Sence you went away.
Seems lak to me de sky ain't half so blue,
Seems lak to me dat ev'ything wants you,
Seems lak to me I don't know what to do,
Sence you went away.
Seems lak to me dat ev'ything is wrong,
Seems lak to me de day's jes twice es long,
Seems lak to me de bird's forgot his song,
Sence you went away.
Seems lak to me I jes can't he'p but sigh,
Seems lak to me ma th'oat keeps gittin' dry,
Seems lak to me a tear stays in ma eye,
Sence you went away.
After this poem was published, Johnson began to see the use of dialect by black poets as self-defeating. He felt that the Negro dialect style of language suggested a view of black life which would serve society better if it were relegated to antiquity. Hence, Johnson wrote in The Book of American Negro Poetry:
“. . . (Dialect) is an instrument with but two full stops, humor and pathos. So even when he confines himself to purely racial themes, the Aframerican poet realizes that there are phases of Negro life in the United States which cannot be treated in the dialect either adequately or artistically. . . .”
Johnson must have written his sixteen dialect poems out of his feelings that “ . . . a Negro in a log cabin is more picturesque than a Negro in a Harlem flat . . . “ as he later expressed in his book. It is well known that he wrote “God’s Trombones,” in 1927, based on having spent summers in rural Hampton, Georgia, while he was pursuing his A.B. degree at Atlanta University in the mid 1890's. It was his stay in rural Georgia that introduced Johnson to the poverty-stricken lives lived by blacks in rural areas across the South. Raised in a middle-class home in Florida, the time he spent in Georgia inspired Johnson's passionate interest in African American folk tradition.
In 1912 he published, anonymously, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. A novel, the book tells the fictional story of a musician who rejects his black roots for a life of material comfort in the white world. Use of this medium allowed Johnson to further examine components of black American racial identity in the twentieth century.
In addition to being a poet, James Weldon Johnson was also a lawyer, author, politician, diplomat, critic, journalist, educator, anthologist, and songwriter. Also one of the early civil rights activists, Johnson co-authored, with his brother, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the song that became known as the "Negro National Anthem." The song's lyrics, below, reveal not only Johnson's great talent, depth, and insight as an artist, they also connect seamlessly with his passions as anthologist, civil rights activist, and educator.
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers died
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee.
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.
Johnson's background allowed him to use his creative genius to show many facets of being black in America, including his use and later criticisms of Negro dialect style of language. It was all part of his transformational journey and his pursuit in extolling the totality of truth of what it meant to be black in America.
Dr. Middlebrook, author of this Hub article, studied black writers of America as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. This is an update of a paper she wrote as a student in a course taught by Richard Barksdale (1915-1993), renowned educator and co-author of Black Writers of America (Richard Barksdale and Keneth Kinnamon, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1972).
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© 2013 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD