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Folks from Dixie by Paul Laurence Dunbar is the first book of short fiction by one of American literature’s earliest great black authors. In this 1898 work, Dunbar grapples with acceptance, audience, and artistic vision, while utilizing the plantation tradition as a vehicle to speak, in the main, to white Americans. Folks from Dixie, more than anything else, is a book about race consciousness: Dunbar examines black and white roles and attempts to show his largely white audience that blacks are both “human” and “African.” On the surface, the book is a series of stories about contented, loyal blacks and peaceful race relations; however within the collection, there is a subtle yet consistent examination of the morés of race relations beneath the surface of the plantation myth.
The son of former slaves, who divorced when he was young, Paul Laurence Dunbar was born June 27, 1872, in Dayton, Ohio. His father, Joshua, had escaped from slavery in Kentucky and served in the Massachusetts 55th Regiment during the Civil War. He later worked as a laborer and died in 1884. Dunbar’s mother, Matilda, was a domestic. She nurtured her son’s love of literature and told him stories about plantation life, which served as literary inspirations for his poems and stories. Dunbar attended grade school and Central High School in Dayton and was editor of the High School Times and president of the school’s literary society. In 1888, he published his first poem, “Our Martyred Soldiers,” and in 1890, he edited and published a short-lived newspaper, the Dayton Tattler, with the aid of Orville and Wilbur Wright, high school friends. Upon graduation, Dunbar was unable to find suitable employment and thus began working as an elevator operator; while employed as such he continued to contribute poems and stories to local newspapers. More significant exposure came in 1893 when Dunbar published his privately printed volume of poetry, Oak and Ivy. In 1895, he privately published Majors and Minors, his second volume of poetry, with the help of Dr. H. A. Tobey and Mr. Thatcher, white patrons who had wanted to send Dunbar to Harvard. It was this volume that the esteemed critic William Dean Howells famously reviewed. Howells praised the dialect verse (“minors”) but dismissed the poems written in standard English (“majors”), a verdict that haunted Dunbar and with which he grappled his entire career. This review marked the beginning of Dunbar’s fame as a writer, and it led to the publication of Lyrics of Lowly Life, by Dodd, Mead and allowed Dunbar to begin to tour nationally and internationally with his work. On March 6, 1898, he married Alice Ruth Moore, a teacher and writer, against her family’s objections, due to Dunbar’s color and caste. Their marriage was turbulent, and they separately permanently in 1902. Dunbar died in Dayton on February 9, 1906, of depression and tuberculosis. A prolific writer, Dunbar ultimately published twelve books of poetry, four books of stories and plays, and four novels.
At one point in his life, Paul Dunbar writes to his friend, Dr. H. A. Tobey, suggesting that it is his “all-absorbing desire to be a worthy singer of the songs of God and Nature. To be able to interpret my own people through song and story, and to prove to the many that after all we are more human than African.”[i]
This statement suggests the complex nature of Dunbar’s literary career and life. On the surface a writer who capitulated to white desires for stereotypical portrayals of blacks, he was also a race man, who proudly wrote about black accomplishments and leaders; and who protested against lynching in newspaper articles. The nature of the complexity of Dunbar’s life and a lens through which one can ascertain his artistic mission can be found within Dunbar’s famous poem, “We Wear the Mask”: “We wear the mask that grins and lies,/It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.” Folks from Dixie is a collection of stories in which Dunbar dons the mask through his adoption of the plantation tradition, in order to gain publication and further his burgeoning career. As Kenny J. Williams notes in “The Masking of the Novelist,” his essay on Dunbar, “In a period when the Negro novelist [or, fiction writer] overly concerned himself with race and by virtue of this wrote a protest fiction, in a period when—in fact—a Negro was expected to be a “spokesman,” Dunbar veiled what he had to say.”[ii] In this regard, Folks from Dixie is quintessential Dunbar, a sensitive, although conciliatory portrayal of black life, which offers subtle or even understated protest, but protest nonetheless.
Contributing to the sense of artistic compromise within this collection is Dunbar’s use of the plantation tradition formula for a number of the stories. The plantation tradition is a genre, popularized during the late nineteenth century through the works of Thomas Nelson Page (1853-1922) and other white male writers that offers a sentimental view of the antebellum South. Within this view, the white slaveholders are beneficent and genteel and the slaves are contented, well behaved, and exceedingly loyal. Replete with racial stereotypes, stories within the genre suggested that the plantation life was a golden age, substituting nostalgia and racial stereotype for realistic portrayals of southern life.
Some of the material for Folks from Dixie is based upon Dunbar’s recollection of stories told to him by his parents. The ex-slaves living in Howard Town in Washington, DC, also provided material for the stories to Dunbar. Several of the stories had already been published: “Anner ‘Lizer’s Stumblin’ Block” in the Independent (May 1895), “The Deliberation of Mr. Dunkin” in Cosmopolitan (April 1898), and “A Family Feud” in Outlook (April 1898). Of the twelve stories within the collection, five were based in the antebellum period and seven are post-bellum. The publishers chose E. W. Kemble to illustrate Folks from Dixie; one may interpret Dunbar’s acceptance of Kemble as illustrator as yet one more example of accommodation on the part of Dunbar. Kemble’s depictions of blacks, which Dunbar biographer Benjamin Brawley labels “grotesque illustrations,”[iii] are classically stereotypical, with exaggerated eyes, lips, and expressions. This Barnes & Noble edition therefore does not include the illustrations. Yet, in spite of Dunbar’s apparent conciliation, the writer counters stereotype and offers a “veiled” protest through the use of symbolism, irony, and humor, as well as through the placement of the stories within the collection. As is the case with a later collection of stories, The Strengthen of Gideon, the order of the stories within Folks from Dixie is central to any discussion of the collection as a whole. The first few stories in the collection are, on the surface, more stereotypical in plot and characterization, while the later pieces are more overtly political.
“Anner ‘Lizer’s Stumblin’ Block,” the initial story in the collection, is a piece about slave religion and a love relationship. (The story was probably written during Paul Laurence Dunbar’s courtship of Alice.) Clearly, a story about two lovers would have been an ideal one with which to begin a collection of sentimental stories about days gone by in the South. However, it is also a story about the institution of slavery and the way in which it affected black love, black family, and black lives. On the surface, the piece offers an idyllic, romantic depiction of plantation life:
It was winter. The gray old mansion of Mr. Robert Selfridge, of Fayette County, Ky., was wrapped in its usual mantle of winter somberness, and the ample plantation stretching in every direction thereabout was one level plain of unflecked whiteness. At a distance from the house the cabins of negroes stretched away in a long, broken black line that stood out in bold relief against the extreme whiteness of their surroundings.
On the surface, both the title and the opening paragraph suggest that this is a story about plantation life, Negro love, and the “stumblin’ block” to that love. However, a real, yet almost imperceptible stumbling block is symbolically suggested by the words, “unflecked whiteness” and “extreme whiteness” to describe the plantation in winter. These words, when contrasted with the “broken black line” signify not only the plantation and its master, but also the system of chattel of this or any plantation. Ostensibly, this love story, regarding Anner ‘Lizer and Sam has to do with Anner ‘Lizer’s inability to get religion at a slave revival, due to Sam. Sam won’t definitively commit to Anner ‘Lizer and so she is unable to get religion at the altar prayer service of the black church on the plantation. After many days of unsuccessfully tarrying and praying for the Spirit, Anner ‘Lizer, consults both the Lord and Uncle Eben, the wise old slave who offers her religious advice. At some point Anner ‘Lizer is taken by the Spirit to the forest, and there she finds her lover, chopping wood, and she confronts him regarding his intention, if he wishes to marry her or another slave belle. Once Sam replies that he does, indeed, wish to marry her, he adds, “you know I wants to ma’y you jes’ ez soon ez Mas’ Rob’ll let me.” On the surface, Sam was her “stumblin’ block,” yet, in actuality, within the story, Dunbar offers an ever-so-veiled critique of the institution of slavery which created a “long, black broken line” of people who can only marry when “Mas’ Rob’ll let [them].”
Another story worth mentioning is “The Ordeal at Mt. Hope.” Like “Anner ‘Lizer’s Stumblin’ Block,” this story centers on black church life and religiosity but unlike the former, which is set in the antebellum, this piece is set in the post-bellum, and clearly there are problems both between black and white and also within the black community. The source of the ordeal within the community of Mt. Hope against which a young, gifted black preacher, Rev. Howard Dokesbury, must contend was “not the wickedness of this boy he was fighting or even the wrongdoing of Mt. Hope. It was the aggregation of the evils of the fathers, the grandfathers, the masters and the mistresses of these people.” So, while on the surface this is a piece about a prodigal black boy who is redeemed by a preacher, it is also a critique of a post-bellum black community, asking several important questions, including, what can it become? How does it reach that potential, and what is the proper role for the black intelligentsia, its educated leaders? While this is a story of happy endings, ultimately, it offers insight into insignificant conflicts confronting the black community.
Dunbar’s black characters display a humble intelligence that marks their humanity and counters their stereotypical situations and delineations. In the story “Nelse Hatton’s Vengeance,” Dunbar examines the legacy of the institution of slavery and the theme of forgiveness. Nelse, a former slave now living in Dexter, Ohio, takes in a white stranger who turns out to be his former master, Mas’ Tom. And, although the former slave is now in a position to exact vengeance, what he ultimately extends to the white man, after working through feelings of rage and the desire for revenge, is forgiveness and magnanimity. Within the story, Dunbar complicates the racial dynamic by presenting in Nelse Hatton a black who, in the model of Booker T. Washington, has utilized industry and “straightforward honesty” to win the respect and admiration of white and black alike. In dealing with their white counterparts in the collection, several of whom are their masters or former masters, Dunbar’s black characters evince a level of self-sacrifice and a sense of irony, as is the case in the story “The Intervention of Peter,” in which a slave, Peter, uses his “invisibility” and guile to risk his own life and possibly save that of his master. Dunbar’s story “At Shaft 11” examines labor unrest due to black strikebreakers. Within the piece, Dunbar examines the rights of blacks to work alongside whites and defend themselves against racial violence.
Folks from Dixie was well received by critics of its day. In a favorable review, which differs not in spirit from the William Dean Howells review of Lyrics of Lowly life, The Bookman reviewer, George Preston, observes, “the work is notable as the first expression in national prose fiction of the inner life of the American negro. . . . It should, perhaps, be said that Mr. Dunbar’s poems, published about a year ago, were the first utterance from behind the impenetrable curtain separating the black American from the white.”[iv]
The New York Times reviewer was similarly impressed with the collection:
We fear Mr. Dunbar wishes his critics were colorblind, and would judge his work as literature only, without insistence of personality. But he must forgive us for saying that in view of his race and the conditions of his childhood he has done two unique things: He has treated the negro “objectively,” as Mr. Howells says, with perfect truth and sympathy, but without a trace of sentimentality; and he has treated the former slave owners we had almost said subjectively, not only without any touch of bitterness, but with a comprehension and tenderness so fine as to be beyond praise. Nothing could be more nobly conceived than the story of “Nelse Hatton’s Vengeance.” To have written it required rare qualities of head and heart.[v]
In other words, contemporary reviewers of the work praised Dunbar for the compassionate and sympathetic way in which whites are portrayed, the tone of accommodation and conciliation that marks the entire collection.
Later scholarly attention to the stories within the collection has moved from a dismissal of Dunbar’s “plantation stories” as simplistic and stereotypical to greater appreciation for the veiled or masked duality which marks his work. Benjamin Brawley, in his 1936 biography of Dunbar, suggests that Dunbar “in general followed the trend of the day,” as opposed to writing in a more political vein.[vi] However, Peter Revell, a later critic (1979) suggests that such an appraisal of the collection is superficial and fails to acknowledge Dunbar’s use of realism and locales other than the plantation.[vii] More recent scholars, such as Gene Andrew Jarrett and Thomas Lewis Morgan (2005), discuss how Dunbar’s “apparent inconsistency” with respect to the political nature of his work is to his obligations to and understanding of the marketplace.[viii]
Folks from Dixie foreshadows later work by Dunbar, such as The Strength of Gideon and The Sport of the Gods. Moreover, it anticipates the work of such authors as Richard Wight in its focus on the South; as with Wright’s work, yet with a different tonal quality, Dunbar’s collection examines the “ethics of living Jim Crow,” through the mindset and strategies of nineteenth-century blacks. Additionally, in his examination of labor issues, Dunbar’s work here foreshadows work such as William Attaway’s 1941 naturalistic novel about black migrant laborers, Blood on the Forge. Taken as a whole, the collection of stories in Folks from Dixie is complex in that it is a capitulation of the racial expectations of its time, all the while “masking” a sub-theme of black protest. Readers of Folks from Dixie will find in Dunbar a writer who seemingly panders to white expectations, while also manifesting the “twoness” which W. E. B. Dubois later talks about in Souls of Black Folk (1903).[ix]
Twenty-first-century readers of Folks from Dixie would do well to remember the circumstances surrounding the work. A young black artist from meager beginnings, Dunbar was keenly aware of the expectations of his largely white audience, as he was building a career, attempting to gain a voice in the marketplace, while also grappling with audience and critical expectations. Such a dilemma—of articulating an “authentic” black voice--is as old as the nineteenth-century controversies regarding the “humanity” of the African; and as current as twenty-first-century social and political headlines. Paul Laurence Dunbar knew his audience and thus, in order to sustain a voice, utilized formulas such as the plantation tradition, while also subtly presenting the plight of the “long, broken black line of people” which slavery had rendered. Folks from Dixie is an important collection; it is quintessential Dunbar. This early work of the enduring artist is essential reading for any student of the Dunbar canon or of African American literature in general.
Frank E. Dobson, Jr., is director of the Johnson Black Cultural Center and Faculty Head of House at Vanderbilt University. He has published fiction and nonfiction as well as in the field of African American literature.
[i] Cunningham, Virginia. Paul Laurence Dunbar and His Song. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1947, 129. (Within the letter, Dunbar articulates his desire to “interpret his people, presumably to a white audience).
[ii] Williams, Kenny J. “The Masking of the Novelist,” in A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar, ed. Jay Martin. New York, Dodd, Mead and Co., 1975, 157.
[iii] Brawley, Benjamin. Paul Laurence Dunbar, Poet of His People. New York: Kennikat, 67.
[iv] Preston, George. Bookman, Volume 7, June 1898, 348-349.
[v] New York Times, June 18, 1898, 397.
[vi] Brawley, 67.
[vii] Revell, Peter. Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston, Twayne, 109.
[viii] Jarrett Gene Andrew, and Thomas Lewis Morgan, Introduction.
The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Eds. Jarrett and Morgan. Athens: Ohio University Press, xv-xxv.
[ix] DuBois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. rpt. New York: Bedford, 1977, 38.