Paul Laurence Dunbar, Racial Uplift, and Collective Identity

A 1903 portrait of Paul Laurence Dunbar in The Booklovers Magazine (Cbaile19, Wikimedia Commons).

On December 8, 1896, Paul Laurence Dunbar met with John Wesley Cromwell, Alexander Crummell, Walter B. Hayson, and Kelly Miller in Washington, D.C. to discuss the prospects of creating a Black society which would become the American Negro Academy. The group formulated a statement outlining the society’s mission. It described the Academy’s mission as an effort:

To promote the historical and literary works of Negro authors. To gather in its archive valuable data, historical or literary works of Negro authors. To aid, by publications, the vindication of the race from vicious assaults, in all lines of learning and truth. To publish an annual collection of original articles. To raise the standard of intellectual endeavor among American Negros.

Seeking to promote a collective literary and historical identity, the group’s statement of purpose highlights Dunbar’s thoughts about racial uplift and the cultivation of Black community that he sought to establish from the outset of his career.

As an eighteen-year-old high school senior, Dunbar published the inaugural issue of the Dayton Tattler in December 1890. With the Tattler, he sought to provide a source of information for the “five thousand colored people” who called Dayton, Ohio, a city of sixty thousand, home.1 Dunbar hoped, as he writes in the “Salutatory” for the first issue, that the Tattler would provide a “guiding star” for the community that would foster a collective identity and serve as vehicle for racial uplift.

His “Salutatory” proclaims that the paper will offer the “young people a field in which to exercise their literary talents, to champion the cause of right, and to espouse the principles of honest republicanism.” Through this, the Tattler strove to differentiate itself from other papers such as the Sunday World, “whose motive seems to be to entertain rather than to instruct,” and the Wesleyan Indicator, the Wesleyan church’s paper. Instead of just finding trifling entertainment or church related news, the Tattler’s readers could find “‘crumbs for all chickens’; plenty of news, jokes, stories, and even poems for those poetically inclined” within the paper’s pages.

Chester Broady’s “To the Front!” appears next to Dunbar’s “Salutatory.” Broady, who served as the Tattler’s business manager, argues that the paper will be “a paper instituted and constituted for the advancement and development of the Afro-American in every possible way.” To do this, Broady states, “We, then must educate; we must educate or we must perish.” Dunbar and Broady clearly espoused ideas of racial uplift within the Tattler, and they saw education and the cultivation of taste as tools that would ultimately lead to advancement.

Three and a half years after the inaugural issue of the Tattler, Dunbar’s “Of Negro Journals” appeared in the Chicago Record on June 22, 1894. In the article, Dunbar argues that the Black press “has not merely kept pace with [the negro’s] evolutions, but rather led the way,” citing Freedom’s Journal, the Ram’s Horn, and the North Star as examples. Here, Dunbar links the contemporary role of the Black Press in the 1890s to its predecessors earlier in the century, highlighting his knowledge of the press’ importance in the dissemination of knowledge within the community. Dunbar continues by arguing that the contemporary press fosters partisanism, not unification, because they have “given [readers] wrong aspirations and fostered wrong tastes in them.”

This history of efforts for advancement through the Black Press traces back to the Freedom’s Journal in 1827 in which John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish sought to, publish a paper that served “a developing black community [rather] than as a paper of protest,” as Frederick Cooper notes. In fact, articles related to slavery rarely appeared in the paper, and when they did, they were typically reprinted from other publications. Russwurm and Cornish saw the first Black newspaper as a means of racial uplift, usually printing articles on temperance, appearance, African history, and advice on cultivating tastes in literature. As Jacqueline Bacon notes, “Cornish and Russwurm placed a far greater emphasis on African Americans’ self-determination and collective identity than on white racism.” Part of the effort toward affirmative identity for Russwurm and Cornish was a collective literary tradition.

While white canonical authors appeared in the pages of the Freedom’s Journal, the editors published poetry by Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton and works of poetry and fiction written by readers. “Theresa; a Haytien Tale” by S. was one of these works, and it is the first short story published by a Black American. In the second issue of Freedom’s Journal on March 23, 1827, a correspondent going by the name of J. argued for Wheatley’s literary merit. Specifically J. argued against Thomas Jefferson’s assertions that Wheatley’s poetry was not worthy of criticism. Through pieces such as this, and through the placement of Wheatley’s poetry next to authors such as William Cullen Bryant, Russwurm and Cornish worked to create a collective literary tradition while also educating readers.

Later, in 1856, Bishop Daniel Payne’s “On General Literature” appeared in the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Repository of Religion and Literature. Payne, a well-known figure in the Black periodical press of the nineteenth century, comments that “the object of literature is to collect, preserve and transmit to posterity the fruits of intelligence, the knowledge and learning of the men of all nations and ages,” even explaining that literature “is the great medium of instruction to mankind.” From its inception, the Black Press perceived the importance of literature, in the broadest sense of the term in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, to serve as a means of uplift and instruction for the community. Eric Gardner argues that those involved in the Black Press “were continually concerned with the proper practices of mobility to ensure racial elevation, citizenship, and broader participation that would make their places seem more expected and more deeply tied to the rest of the Black nation, as well as to the deeply contested broader multiracial nation.” The press served as a space of community and instruction that could reach across geographical space and connect African Americans from Boston to Indianapolis and Dayton.

According to Dunbar in his “Salutatory,” “[t]he literacies shall be represented” alongside notices for lodge events and various other announcements. In regard to the question of “the race problem,” Dunbar argues that nothing new entered into the discussion within the previous decade and that time has come to stop talking about the issue and to act upon it: “For your own sake, for the sake of Heaven and the race, stop saying, and go to doing.” Here, at eighteen, Dunbar sounds far removed from the conciliatory, accommodationist that some have made him out to be. He  calls for more than just words to respond to the racism and oppression that confronts the community; he calls for action. As well, Dunbar echoes the aims of Russwurm and Cornish. Like them, he sought to uplift and foster community with the Dayton Tattler through the incorporation of literature.

The Tattler contains some of Dunbar’s earliest work under pseudonyms. Over the course of the paper’s publication, Dunbar published four stories—“His Bride of the Tomb,” “His Failure in Arithmetic,” “His Little Lark,” and “From Impulse”—a play entitled The Gambler’s Wife, and his dialect poem “Lager Beer.” None of these works directly address “the race problem.” Unfortunately, we will never know the culmination of Dunbar’s vision for the Tattler because the paper ceased publication after only three issues due to a lack of subscriptions. What we do know is that even at a young age Dunbar saw the importance of the Black Press and its history in fostering community and a collective identity. He sought to do just that through the Dayton Tattler by presenting readers with literature, community announcements, national news, advice columns, and more.

  1.  Orville Wright, of the Wright Brothers, helped Dunbar publish the Dayton Tattler.
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Matthew Teutsch

Matthew Teutsch is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. He has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest's run on Black Panther. Follow him on Twitter @SilasLapham.