Black and White: Paul Laurence Dunbar
and Race in Post-Civil War Literature

Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African American writer to achieve significant commercial success. Writing during a time when minstrelsy stereotypes of African Americans predominated in popular literature, Dunbar struggled to find a voice that would both appeal to his largely white readership and sincerely express African American experiences and culture.

Read our biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar

Dunbar’s first largely successful publication was a collection of poems entitled Majors and Minors (1985). This collection included verse written in standard American English (“majors”) and in southern black dialect (“minors”). Although far outnumbered, the dialect poems drew the most attention, particularly from prominent literary critic William Dean Howells. In a review in Harper’s Weekly (June 27, 1896), Howells extolled Dunbar’s dialect poems as vibrant and authoritative expressions of black culture, but found the rest of his poetry “not… specially notable.”

Read William Dean Howells’ review of Majors and Minors in Harper’s Weekly

In Old Plantation Days
(Dodd, Mead & Co., 1903)

Howell’s review undoubtedly helped Dunbar achieve national recognition. Yet, in praising his dialect poems above his “literary English,” Howells set a critical trend that limited Dunbar throughout his career. Like Howells, many white critics delighted in Dunbar as a literary ambassador for African American culture, and it is not surprising that they most enjoyed his work that adhered to popular stereotypes. They saw him as a racial novelty, fit to entertain the white masses, but not to represent or challenge them.

To some extent, Dunbar accommodated white expectations. Though he was a native Ohioan, Dunbar was considered part of the southern local color tradition. Local colorists, popular in the late 19th century, used regional dialects, customs, characters, and landscapes to give their readers “authentic” local experiences. Most of Dunbar's poems and stories were set in the rural south, and he often made use of black dialect. Common minstrelsy characters, such as faithful slaves, headstrong mammies, and tumbling pickaninnies often appeared in his work. These motifs, already popularized in the southern local color genre, helped Dunbar win commercial success.

Joggin' Erlong
(Dodd, Mead & Co., 1906-10)

Yet, Dunbar was a versatile writer, and his portrayals of African American life reached far beyond the merely stereotypical. Many of his black characters were complex and varied, confronting white privilege as much as they accommodated it. Along with his more lighthearted and sentimental writing, Dunbar offered poignant insights into the often painful realities of African American life. His work encompassed many different regions, including the urban North, the West, and the Midwest. Dunbar also refused to limit himself to writing strictly about racial issues. His first three novels, for example, used racially indistinct characters that many critics perceived to be white.

While Dunbar was a complicated and multi-faceted author, his book covers did not always reflect it. Dodd Mead, and Company, Dunbar’s publishers, often relied on easily recognizable images to connect Dunbar to popular stereotypes of African Americans. The matronly woman sporting a red head scarf of the cover of In Old Plantation Days is unmistakably a “mammy,” a highly spirited, asexual house slave who cares for her master's children as her own. The friendly-looking elderly man on the cover Joggin’ Erlong brings to mind the wise old uncle brimming with folksy wisdom, popularized by Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” tales.

Lyrics of the Hearthside
(Dodd, Mead & Co., 1899)

Not all of Dunar’s book covers depicted stereotypical black characters. Dodd, Mead, and Company, Dunbar’s publishers, also hired artists to create decorative, often floral designs. These designs, which referenced the pastoral South, were common on bindings of southern local color books. The design for Lyrics of the Hearthside incorporates cotton, clearly connecting Dunbar with plantation agriculture. Furthermore, the design is quite beatiful, reducing the legacy of forcerd agricultural labor to the merely decorative.

The covers of In Old Plantation Days, Joggin’ Erelong and Lyrics of the Hearthside promise the reader an “authentic” glimpse into African American culture, while at the same time creating boundaries around the meaning of “authenticity.” Long-suffering mammies and wise old uncles were part of an ongoing cultural narrative that placed African Americans in the rural South, impoverished, unsophisticated, and ultimately under the care of paternal whites. At the time Paul Laurence Dunbar’s works were being published, this narrative was being actively written in minstrel theatre, and in the works of southern authors such as Thomas Nelson Page. The problem with the images on these book covers is similar to the problem of Howells’ review. Just as Howells relegated Dunbar’s authenticity as a writer to his dialect poetry, these images relegate blacks’ authenticity as Americans to stereotypes that accommodate white privilege.

Bibliography (full text available for hyperlinked titles)

The Uncalled, 1898.
The Love of Landry, 1900.
The Fanatics, 1901.
The Sport of the Gods, 1902.

Short Stories
Folks From Dixie, 1898.
The Strength of Gideon, 1900.
In Old Plantation Days, 1903.
The Heart of Happy Hollow, 1904.

Dream Lovers: An Operatic Romance, 1896.
Uncle Eph's Christmas, 1900.
In Dahomey (author of lyrics for stage show), 1903.

Oak and Ivy, 1893
Majors and Minors, 1895.
Lyrics of Lowly Life, 1896.
Lyrics of the Hearthside, 1899.

Poems of Cabin and Field, 1900.
Candle-Lightin’ Time, 1901.
Lyrics of Love and Laughter, 1903.
When Malindy Sings, 1903.
Li’l Gal, 1904.
Chris’mus Is A-Comin’, 1905.
Howdy, Honey, Howdy, 1905.
Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow, 1905.
A Plantation Portrait, 1906.
Joggin’ Erlong, 1906.

Search the PBO database for books by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar Teaching Resources based on Publishers' Bindings Online

Dialect Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, 6-12 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file.

Dialect Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, handout: Word document or PDF file.

Selected Readings

Jarret, Gene Andrew and Thomas Lewis Morgan, ed. The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Forward by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005.

Related Online Resources

Paul Laurence Dunbar, American Memory, Library of Congress

Paul Laurance Dunbar: Dayton Native, National Treasure

Paul Laurence Dunbar Digital Collection, Wright State University Libraries

Paul Laurence Dunbar's Legacy of Language, NPR

Paul Laurence Dunbar, Modern American Poetry

Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ohioana Authors

Paul Laurence Dunbar Scrapbook, Ohio Memory

Paul Laurence Dunbar: The People's Poet, American Experience, PBS

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