Paul Laurence Dunbar was an influential Black American poet. Born in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio to former slaves from Kentucky, Dunbar excelled in school and was considered the class poet in high school. Unable to afford college, he looked for work, but was rejected by Dayton businesses and newspapers because of his race. He finally took a job as an elevator operator. Continuing to write poetry, he was invited by a former teacher to read his poetry to the Western Association of Writers meeting in Dayton in 1892. This experience brought him wider recognition and led him to publish his first book of poems, Oak and Ivy, in 1893. Included in this book were some of his earliest dialect poems that he came to be famous for.
Dunbar published a second book of poetry in 1895, Majors and Minors, one of the several Dunbar books that we hold in Special Collections. This second book included both poems written in standard English, grouped under the heading “Majors,” and poems written in dialect, under the heading “Minors.” Dialect poetry developed out of the Plantation tradition genre of writing in which white writers presented a romanticized vision of the Antebellum South and used dialect in a way that reinforced negative racial stereotypes. But Dunbar and other Black dialect poets “sought to use the problematic plantation-tradition background in a way that rescued both the form and its subjects from the more demeaning aspects of the tradition on which they drew,” as described in the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. “In so doing, the poets moved dialect poetry away from caricature and even, in the view of some writers and critics of the time, toward the presentation of a distinctive African-American cultural heritage rooted in the folk life of the rural South.”
Special Collections has nine of Dunbar’s 20 books of poetry and fiction. Including his second book of poetry, Majors and Minors, shown above right, and his final published book of poetry, Joggin’ Erlong, shown above (1906). We also hold three of his works of of fiction: The Strength of Gideon, The Love of Landry, and The Uncalled.
I’d like to focus on a set of photographically illustrated works of Dunbar’s dialect poetry: six books published almost annually between 1809 and 1906 by Dodd, Mead & Co. These editions were collaborative artistic works, illustrated with photographs by the Hampton Institute Camera Club and other Art Nouveau-style decorations. ISU Special Collections owns three of these: Candle-Lightin’ Time (1904; first published 1901), When Malindy Sings (1906; first published 1896), and Joggin’ Erlong (1906).
The Hampton Institute Camera Club, which ran from 1893-1926, was a group of predominantly white faculty and staff at the Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, a historically Black university in Hampton, Virginia. They practiced a form of photography known as Pictorialism, in which photographers used their medium to create fine art images, emphasizing beauty, composition, and tonality over creating a strictly documentary visual record. Although predominantly white, the Camera Club members portrayed members of the African American community in Hampton, recreating scenes described in Dunbar’s verse. Ray Sapirstein, who has done research on these illustrated volumes, argues that, not only did the Club illustrate some of Dunbar’s racially subversive poems, like “When Malindy Sings,” but also that their artistic choices in illustrating the poem “actually makes explicit some of Dunbar’s subtly subversive content” (“Out from Behind” 172).
The poem pokes fun at one singer, Miss Lucy, who sings with proficiency, but cannot compare to the untaught but wholehearted singing of Malindy. Sapirstein points out that the poem does not specify the racial identity of Miss Lucy but implies that Malindy is African American based on the gospel songs that make up her repertoire. However, in the photograph that illustrates the first three stanzas of the poem, the photographers made the decision to depict a white woman at the piano facing a black man. Sapirstein writes, “The illustration from the photo-text makes Dunbar’s statement about the inferiority of Lucy’s ‘nachel o’gans’ far more racially explicit and transgressive. … In this specific instance, it was the Hampton photographers who were responsible for making Dunbar’s subversive implication explicit, as well as depicting a young white girl in a domestic interior with a self-possessed, well-dressed (and married) young black man, potentially as social equals. Published in 1901, the tension and uncertainty on the models’ faces also reveals the transgressive nature of their proximity. The headpiece of the poem depicts Malindy as a joyous singer in a homespun vernacular calico dress” (ibid, 173).
As Sapirstein points out, these illustrated editions were largely compilations of poetry previously published by Dunbar, with a few exceptions, and they appear to be largely assembled by the Camera Club and later approved by Dunbar, as indicated by documents held in the Hampton University Archives. For example, a mockup of the first book of the series, Poems of Cabin and Field, held in the Hampton University Archives, contains a note reading, “‘Mr. Dunbar says no to the first print'” (198), indicating that Dunbar exercised some editorial jurisdiction over the work. Still, there is little evidence of Dunbar’s feelings about the Camera Club’s overall project with the illustrated editions. He did benefit from them in multiple ways, however. The editions were very popular and allowed him to support himself through his writing. He received a thousand dollars in royalties from each publication, which enabled him to cover medical expenses as he grew ill with the tuberculosis that ended his life at age 33. Beyond that, the illustrated editions had an influence on later African American writers and photographers, including Langston Hughes, Roy de Carava, Gordon Parks, Richard Wright, and Walter Dean Myers, who worked on similar collaboratively illustrated books of poetry (Picturing 327).
The last of the editions, Joggin’ Erlong, was published in 1906, just after Dunbar’s death that same year. A note on one of the pages indicates that “Slide Along” was the last dialect poem written by Dunbar.
(note: The information on the illustrated editions of Dunbar’s poetry came from the following two sources.)
Sapirstein, Ray. “Out from Behind the Mask: Paul Laurence Dunbar, the Hampton Institute Camera Club, and Photographic Performance of Identity.” Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. 167-203.
Sapirstein, Ray. “Picturing Dunbar’s Lyrics.” African American Review, vol. 41, no. 2, Summer 2007, 327-339.