What is "Encouragement" by Paul Laurence Dunbar about?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Paul Dunbar's "Encouragement" is about a male/female relationship. The speaker is a woman who loves a man, but he is reticent about his feelings. 

This poem is written in dialect, so it has a genuine tone to it in its depiction of the couple. The good-natured woman cajoles Ike Johnson after inviting him into her house. She teases him about his being like those who just "Dat jes' shet dey mouf an' frown—" (who just shut their mouth and frown), instead of talking. "Speak up, Ike, an' 'spress yo'se'f, she encourages him. This is a refrain at the end of each stanza.

Fortunately for Ike, the speaker keeps talking and tells him about her friend who just got married and how she has some new things for her.

I could ma'y in a week
If de man I wants 'ud speak

Still she asks Ike to express himself, but he remains silent. So, she keeps talking until finally she says

I loves you
You's my choice and allus was.

Finally, the woman tells Ike, "I loves you" and says that he is the one she wants and always has. She takes Ike's arm and ask him to hug her, asking him, "Why have you made me beg you so?"
Ironically, she continues her refrain of asking what he wants to know and urging Ike to speak up and express himself. But, Ike has not spoken a word; instead, it is she who has spoken up and expressed herself.

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