“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, sings various songs of religious import. Miss Lucy, perhaps the plantation mistress, is told that her trained singing from a written score is no competition for Malindy’s natural talent; indeed, the birds, though they sing sweetly, hush of their own accord when Malindy sings her superior melodies. Whenever Malindy sings, the narrator observes, it is a singular spiritual experience, one that should be taken advantage of every time.
In this early poem, Dunbar’s gifts as a poet are evident: the meter and rhyme are regular, as are the quatrains that make up the poem. Furthermore, Dunbar is quite adept at creating images and imparting feeling through his use of sensory detail, talents he would continue to employ and capitalize upon in succeeding works.