Monday, July 24, 2017

Paul Laurence Dunbar

                                  photo from this site.

The Poet

He sang of life, serenely sweet,

With, now and then, a deeper note.

From some high peak, nigh yet remote,

He voiced the world's absorbing beat.

He sang of love when the earth was young

And Love, itself, was in his lays

But ah, the world, it turned to praise

A jingle in a broken tongue

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), was born in Dayton, Ohio to parents who at the time, were newly freed slaves. Dunbar expressed a prodigious ability for poetry at the tender age of six. He grew up to excel in secondary school, becoming class president and editing the school newspaper. Later, he began publishing with the help of high school classmates, Orville and Wilbur Wright, who later helped to fund Dunbar's own press, The Dayton Tattler (1). Dunbar's first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy, published in 1893, attracted the attention of such figures as midwestern local colorist, James Whitcomb Riley, and publisher of The Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells. Publishing during a time in which remembrances of the antebellum South were becoming quite popular, Dunbar was immediately praised for his ability to capture the aesthetics of the African American folk through his dialect poetry. However, despite the indelible mark his contributions made in African American letters, modern-day critics have condemned Dunbar for having pandered to a white-controlled publishing industry. Still others champion Dunbar for his ability to maneuver within a limiting set of parameters, by publishing more openly critical pieces such as "The Mask," along with subtler, signifying poetry that reflected the nuances of the African American antebellum experience. Though James Weldon Johnson lauded Dunbar as one of the premiere African American poets and one his greatest influences--particularly for his dialect poetry--Dunbar still lamented that he had not achieved as much with his work as he would have liked. The poem above, simply entitled "The Poet," subtly betrays the poet's inner misgivings about his own dilemma (2). However Dunbar may have felt about his life's work, the following video features a modern poet who explains Dunbar's legacy as it has affected him.

Question for discussion: Watch the following video after having read some of Dunbar's poetry--particularly those dialect pieces that recall the Antebellum South. Considering the trends evolving at the time Dunbar was writing, such as the emerging "New Negro Movement," in which black artists and poets were discovering new, informed modes of self-expression, how might Dunbar's backward glance at the plantation south complement or inform such movements? How might Dunbar's experience and life work continue to inspire, inform, or influence us today?

Civil Rights Icon: Ida Wells-Barnett

*photograph sourced from this site
Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) Born in Holly Springs, 
Mississippi 'just six months before Emancipation,' Ida B. Wells would become one of the earliest and most outspoken advocates of human rights. Her father was politically minded and considered himself a 'race man; her mother, Elizabeth, who worked as a cook, strongly encouraged her children's educations. Ida would attend one of the Freedman Schools in Holly Springs until she was sixteen. After losing her parents to the Yellow Fever epidemic of the 1870s, young Ida Barnett was determined to keep what remained of her family together and supported her siblings on her meager teacher's salary. Her interest in racial politics in the South began with her outrage at the disparity between the salaries earned by white teachers (eighty dollars a month) compared to those of African American teachers (about thirty dollars a month); this concern, together with a determination to improve the educational opportunities for African Americans galvanized her early activism. Wells moved to Memphis, where she found better pay in the Shelby County School System, and during the summer sessions, she would attend Fisk University (an HBC in Nashville); and LeMoyne Institute (1)

Wells' journalism career began shortly after an incident occurred in which Wells refused to surrender her seat on a Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad train. After two lawsuits to sue the railroad (neither of which was successful), she began to write about her experiences in the newspapers, The Evening Star and The Living Way--a weekly Baptist newspaper located at the Beale Street Baptist Church. Wells wrote these columns under the pen name "Iola": a stylistic (and logistic) choice that inspired the fictitious character Iola Leroy, created by fellow activist Frances E.W. Harper in the novel by the same name. Her focus soon shifted to the subject of lynchings when, in 1892 "three black businessmen opened a grocery store that competed with a white merchant. They were lynched" (Gates 676). The young journalist railed against the incident, exposing the "Old Threadbare Lie": the presumption among white supremacists that black males were inherently drawn to, and determine to violate, white women. "Nobody in this section believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men assault white women. If southern white men are not careful they will over-reach themselves and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women" (Gates 676). Her words sparked a firestorm, and the office of her newspaper, Free Speech, was destroyed by angered whites. Fortunately, Wells was out of town at the time. During her time away from the South, Wells developed her career as writer and editor, and assumed partial ownership of the New York Age. Her Red Record exposed the atrocities of lynchings in the South for a national audience, and advocated "positive action" from its readers. Wells went on to become an important figure in the club women movement--African American women who organized for social change--and was among the founding constituency for the NAACP.

Video on Wells-Barnett by Katherine Bankole-Medina

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Harlem Renaissance: Some Major Figures

Alain Locke

The first African American Rhodes Scholar, a graduate of Harvard University, and one of the major anthologists of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke edited and published The New Negro in 1925. This anthology, which reflects the social and political contexts of the Harlem Renaissance, also distills the spirit and varied talents of Harlem Renaissance poets, dramatists, essayists, and short story writers. Considered one of the preeminent texts of its time, The New Negro conceived of black America as linked not only to other African-based cultural movements around the world but also to other movements, such as the Irish or Czech, that fused ethnic pride or nationalism with a desire for a fresh achievement and independence in art, culture, and politics" (Gates 957).

Charlotte Osgood Mason

Charlotte Osgood Mason was one of many white patrons who subsidized the careers of such artists as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Alain Locke. Considered a "woman of volatile temperament and sometimes arresting ideas," Mason frequently insisted that her beneficiaries addressed her as "Godmother."

Carl Van Vechten

Carl Van Vechten was another principle--and highly visible--patron of the Harlem Renaissance. Initially a music critic and essayist, Van Vechten became closely associated with many of the African American writers who emerged from the Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and later, Richard Wright. During and well after the Harlem Renaissance reached its peak, Van Vechten took up photography of many of the most notable figures of that time and later. His personal papers are held at the Beinecke Library at Yale, where a collection of over 1800 Kodachrome slides of his photographs is held and featured at this, Library of Congress site.

Jessie Fauset

Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Cornell University, Jessie Fauset published four novels--including her most acclaimed, There is Confusion before becoming the literary editor of the NAACP's The Crisis magazine from 1919-1926.

Arthur Schomburg

Of Puerto Rican and German descent, Arthur Schomberg was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico in 1874. While in primary school, a teacher claimed that African Americans had 'no history.' Schomburg set out to prove her wrong. He devoted most of his adult life to archiving, recording black history that included slave narratives, literature and art, that now comprises the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library (1).

W.E.B. Dubois

photo from this site.

Considered the "Father of the Harlem Renaissance," William Burqhardt Dubois was a scholar, philosopher, journalist, and educator whose groundbreaking publication, The Souls of Black Folk offered an unprecedented look at the particularized struggles of African Americans in the 20th century. Co-founder of the NAACP and editor of its literary arm, The Crisis, Dubois helped to spearhead the careers of such writers and poets as Countee Cullen and Sterling A. Brown, while he examined the nature of "Double Consciousness," "The Veil," and encouraged African Americans to think of themselves as belonging to a global community.