Dunbar’s poetry can be divided into two distinct classes: those poems written in Negro dialect and those written in standard English. The former, Dunbar wrote to gain an audience because of their popular appeal; in the latter, he expressed himself more as he believed a poet should. It is clear that Dunbar preferred the poems in standard English to the dialect poems, as seen in “The Poet” (1903): “But ah, the world, it turned to praise/ A jingle in a broken tongue.” The praise for the dialect poems, often at the expense of those written in standard English, caused him considerable concern throughout his career.
In the dialect poems, Dunbar presents scenes from plantation life, mostly in the light, humorous, and lively manner of the plantation tradition popularized by white writers Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page. Dunbar’s characters are simple, good-natured, big-hearted folk who always speak in a dialect that Dunbar created. There is little overt protest in these poems, but often protest is subtly masked with the dialect.
Dunbar transforms the technique of masking into the theme of the mask in certain of his standard English poems, of which “We Wear the Mask” is the most obvious example. In addition, Dunbar eloquently addresses a variety of subjects, from love and death to nature and religion. The poems written in standard English are often lyrical and reflect a keen sensitivity on the part of the poet. Furthermore, these poems represent experiments with a number of different poetic forms as well as a mastery of rhyme and meter.
Similarly, Dunbar’s short stories can be divided into two distinct types. First, there are the simple, lighthearted tales told in the plantation tradition—stories of a simple folk and their pleasures, pains, and sorrows. Then there are those stories written in a weak vein of protest but designed, nevertheless, to uphold the humanity of the black man. Regardless of type, however, the stories are structurally weak, and the characterization rarely transcends stereotype.
Dunbar’s novels were largely unsuccessful. Three of them concern white characters: The Uncalled, The Love of Landry, and The Fanatics. The last novel, The Sport of the Gods, has black characters who are central to the story, but the plot is overly contrived and, while the characters are somewhat more complex, they are still largely stereotypes and thus fall short of creditable portrayals.
Regardless of genre, the one characteristic that stands out in all of Dunbar’s writing is his sincerity, his deep regard for subject and craft. This, coupled with often delightful poems and stories, helped Dunbar achieve a high degree of popular success.
“When Malindy Sings”
First published: 1895 (collected in Majors and Minors, 1895)
Type of work: Poem
In old plantation days one slave praises the singing talents of another slave, Malindy.
“When Malindy Sings” appeared in Dunbar’s second collection of poems, Majors and Minors. Because it is a dialect piece, Dunbar placed it in the latter half of the collection, subtitled “Minors.” Ironically, “When Malindy Sings” quickly became one of Dunbar’s most popular poems and has since become perhaps his most anthologized dialect poem.
“When Malindy Sings” was inspired by Dunbar’s mother’s constant singing of hymns and Negro spirituals. In particular, Dunbar attributes the powerful melody and unmatchable phrasings to particular natural gifts of black singers.
The narrator, himself apparently a house servant, admonishes all to keep quiet as Malindy, probably a field slave,...
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