The Turn of the 20th Century

Throughout the nineteenth century, literature was a domain of creative expression for African Americans and a vehicle for communicating important social and political ideas. During the early decades of the twentieth century, the country witnessed a genuine flowering of African American literary activity. This section of the exhibition features works of important writers from the very early part of the twentieth century, who would prove influential in the decades that followed.

Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1872-1906

Poems of Cabin and Field. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1899 (1908).

Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first hugely successful African American poet. His importance to African literary history is fundamental. Made up of dialect poems that had appeared elsewhere, this collection offers a sentimentalized image of Black life in the rural South. The attractive Art Nouveau binding and decorations were created by designer Alice Morse, and the poems are illustrated with photographs by members of the Hampton Camera Club. The Club was made up mostly of white Northerners on the faculty of Hampton Institute, an African American institution of higher learning, and alma mater of Booker T. Washington.

Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1872-1906

When Malindy Sings. New York: Dodd Mead, 1906.

When Malindy Sings is another in the series of six books of Dunbar’s poetry illustrated by the Hampton Institute Camera Club. The title poem employs dialect to praise the moving and melodious singing style of Malindy, by ironic contrast with the earnest but less inspired efforts of “Miss Lucy,” a white child attempting to master the piano through the study of musical notes and staff. Dunbar is often associated with his dialect poetry, which employed an artificial linguistic register to represent the speech of rural African Americans. Black writers such as James Weldon Johnson rejected Dunbar’s use of dialect, viewing it as a limiting device, rooted in racial stereotype. Other poets such as Langston Hughes wrote positively about Dunbar’s dialect poetry.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, 1825-1911

Poems. Philadelphia: George S. Ferguson, 1896. Author’s autograph copy. From the library of Alice Dunbar-Nelson; also bears the stamp of Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Harper was an extremely well known and respected anti-racist novelist, lecturer, and activist of the nineteenth century. The poetry in this volume evokes topics such as heroism in the face of racial injustice and the innocence of childhood. The presence of Harper’s work in the libraries of two prominent African American poets suggests the great influence she in fact had on the generation that came after her. The book also bears a poetic inscription by the author: “Though thorns may often piece my feet/And the shadows still abide/The mists will vanish before his smile/There will be light at eventide.”

Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, 1875-1935

Violets and Other Tales. Boston: Monthly Review, 1895. First edition. From the Library of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Also bears the stamps of Paul Laurence-Dunbar and the bookplate of Pauline A. Young.

This book of poems and short stories was Dunbar-Nelson’s first, published when she was only 20. Often reflective of her experiences as a New Orleanian, it contains a mix of poetry, short stories, translation, and essays.Critics have suggested that this hybrid approach anticipates later works of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Jean Toomer’s Cane (also featured in this exhibition). This first edition is from Dunbar-Nelson’s library, bearing her stamp, as well as the stamp of Paul Laurence Dunbar. It also has the bookplate of Pauline A. Young, Dunbar-Nelson’s niece, who was head of the Delaware chapter of the NAACP and a librarian at Howard High School in Wilmington, where Dunbar Nelson herself taught.