"G' way an' quit dat noise, Miss Lucy
Put da music book away:
'What's de use to keep on tryin'?
Ef you practise twell you're gray,
You can't sta't no notes a-flyin'
Lak de ones dat rants and rangs
from de kitchen to de big woods
When Malindy Sings. . . "
from "When Malindy Sings" by Paul Laurence Dunbar
(KEY OFF) aul (KEYWORD) Laurence Dunbar, whose dialect poetry made him the first black writer to be accepted on a large scale by white Americans, is still stirring debate - more than 70 years after his death - over the merit of his work.
His detractors say he sold out to an overwhelmingly white book-buying public by writing in a contrived plantation dialect style. They also say he reduced Afro-American life to a round os simple and idyllic acitivity.
On the other hand, his defenders contend that although some of his writing may be pandered to the worst stereotypes of plantation life, he still wrote poetry that contains dramatic meaning for contemporary blacks.
"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.
On Thursday night, the 72nd anniversary of Dunbar's death, a group of scholars and writers gathered at Morgan State University here in an attempt to move closer to the true meaning of the poet's life and work.The scene was a mixture of the academic and personal.
Before he died of tuberculosis in 1906 at age 34, Dunbar turned out a prodigious amount of work, several volumes of poetry, four novels and four books of stories and sketches. His work was championed by critic William Dean Howells and he enjoyed popularity in this country and England. In later years, hundreds of schools across the country were named for him.
J. Saunders Redding, professor of American Studies at Cornell University, argued that by writing in dialect Dunbar had betrayed himself and his cultural heritage. Dunbar never admitted, Redding continued, that he was writing in such a style for personal advancement.
Moreover, Redding, 72, who was taught high school English literature by Dunbar's divorced wife in Wilmington, Del., said the poet had been praised for the wrong reasons.
"Then why do we honor him?" asked the professor. "We honor him because he was for Negroes the special symbol of an important historical era: that era in which Negroes first consciously set out to achieve in the white man's world. We honor him because in occasional poems he was a defender of humanistic idealism."
Soon afterward, Pauline Young, a niece of Dunbar's wife, a retired teacher and a classmate of Redding, reminisced: "Why are so many people denigrating Dunbar? He meant a lot to my generation. Uncle Paul was a good man. I remember my aunt speaking warmly of him."
She read briefly from her collection of 500 Dunbar letters, constantly interspersing comments about him."
"He was a frail man," she said. "But he had a fine handwriting style - tiny and delicate. He and my aunt wrote for two years before they ever saw each other. He had read an article by her and her picture in the publication. So he started writing her. The first time he saw her she came down from Boston to New York to see him off to Europe."
The evening's strongest defense of Dunbar came from Addison Gayle, English professor at Bernard Baruch College of the City University of New York.
To understand Dunbar, said Gayle, it is necessary to regard him as possessing frailties: "To apologize for Dunbar, therefore, is to apologize for ourselves. To negate the varied contradictions of his lfe is to negate those of our own."
"I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fair would be on the bough-a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting -
I know why he beats his wing."
Lines like these are proof, Gayle continued, that Dunbar was just as angry in 1898 as black writers are in 1978.
"And so we need not apologize for his life, nor seek to revise it, to make it palatable to the black middle class," Gayle said scornfully, "for to the extent that we do so, we pander to the national sentiment, the national taste. . .
"To understand this need, changing and shifting, is to understand much about our present literature and its writers, men and women, not always so honest and so torn as Dunbar."