Dunbar's Warning

Paul Laurence Dunbar

During my time in graduate school I took a seminar class on the life and works of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Paul Laurence Dunbar was an exceptional writer that celebrated Black southern culture and dialect. I admit that when I was younger I lacked the maturity and intellect to understand his work. By the time I attended graduate school I was able to dissect and appreciate his work. I was required to read his novel The Sport of the Gods (1902). I believe this novel attempts to teach Black Americans a lesson about life in the North. In this novel Barry Hamilton is an emancipated Black man who works as a butler for a wealthy White man Maurice Oakley. Barry lives in a small cottage with his family not far from the Oakley home. The Hamilton family comprises of Barry, his wife Fannie, Joe and Kitty. Joe and Kitty are their two children. During a farewell dinner for Maurice's younger brother, Francis Oakley, a large sum of money disappears. Maurice does not realize that his younger brother stole the money. Maurice accuses Barry of stealing the money. Barry is sentenced to prison for ten years of hard labor. Additionally, Maurice forces Barry's family to leave the cottage. They attempt to find work at other locations in their Virginia town.  Prior to the accusation The Hamilton family also disassociate themselves from Black society in their town. The false accusation destroys the Hamilton family's reputation. Fannie and the children relocate to New York City to start a new life.

Black Americans during the Great Migration in Harlem.

Toni's Thoughts: In this story Dunbar probes that Black Americans will never be exempt from racism. As the Hamilton's obtain social progress a conflict emerges immediately. Mr. Oakley believes that Barry Hamilton steals his possessions. This novel demonstrates the illusion of inclusion. Barry Hamilton's loyalty towards Mr. Oakley suggest that he is very naïve. Barry Hamilton begins to adopt the ideals of white southern aristocracy. I believe Dunbar does an excellent job examining how some  black people begin to worship whiteness. Through social and economic progress some Black people begin to dissociate themselves from the Black community. Mr. Oakley's attack on Barry is unfortunate. Barry Hamilton dedicates his life to serving Mr. Oakley. Mr. Oakley reveals his true demeanor as a racist. When he argues that Barry steals his possessions instead of considering his own family could be the culprits Barry finally understands racism. Barry's reputation as an honest man is irrelevant because he is Black.

Following the trial and conviction the family of Barry Hamilton relocates to the North. In a state of desperation the Hamilton's seek refuge in New York City as an attempt to avoid humiliation. Dunbar provides an analysis suggesting that the North is a safe haven. Many Black Americans migrate to the North with the assumption that life is better and racism does not exist in this foreign land. I believe this notion is accurate. Many Black Americans in the Northern region of the United States suggests that the Southern region lacks sophistication. They believe that the South lacks economic prosperity. Some of them even assert that racism and poverty does not exist here. Dunbar proposes that Black Americans will become enticed by the glamorous appearance of large northern cities. I support Dunbar's argument. He supports this argument in the story Joe Hamilton; son of Barry Hamilton admires the dress attire of other young men. It appears to be alluring to Joe. The nightclubs and environment surrounding his home becomes intriguing. Joe is eager to become immersed into the city life. I highly recommend more people read this story.

I finally had the chance to visit New York City for the first time back 2015 and I have gone back several times to visit. I am a Southerner and I am a proud country girl. I enjoy traveling to large cities. Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote this novel as a warning to the Black American community reminding us that the grass is not always greener in northern cities. As cliché' this sounds there is so much truth in it. In northern cities such as Philadelphia and Baltimore Black Americans have endured racism, poverty, etc. Yes, I understand that the South is not perfect. The South has always been overt about its racism and attitudes towards Black Americans. But those same attitudes and doctrines manifest through policies and culture in other regions of the country. I believe Dunbar asserts that the South is the home of Black Americans because it is where we can trace our origins. He writes his novel right before The Great Migration begins. It is evident he attempts to warn the community that pace of life in a foreign land can uproot a people. This new environment appears to be aesthetically pleasing but could also be both ugly and sinister.  I understand why many people left the South because our legacy there is bittersweet. I would love to see this novel become a film. More people need to know about the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Also I just want to say I did not give away all the spoilers. Do yourself a favor and read this novel.


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