Paul Laurence Dunbar’s words serve as a cornerstone for much of black literature and everyday lit-dropping conversations among black folks. But when they cross the color line….
Veteran author Derby has her heart in the right place. She states that she wanted to write a biography about Dunbar, with whom she shares the hometown of Dayton, Ohio, “for years.” Giving her narrator a “grandma voice,” the author molds the poet’s life story around his allusive verses. She explains his understanding why the caged bird sings when he takes a job as an elevator operator because the Dayton Herald refused to hire him due to their racist employment practices and Dunbar’s racial “mask” after working as Frederick Douglass’ personal assistant, and she covers his rising popularity as a correspondent and poet. What’s unfortunate is that the narrator’s affectation—from using variations of “jump back,” “honey,” and “ ’bout” to “scoot back,” “mama,” and “hmph”—makes readers wonder how the author envisioned the grandmother, specifically her race. Dialect is tricky, and well-intended voice can backfire, especially for parents of black children seeking books for them.
While the author is otherwise quite respectful toward this beloved black poet, as many grandmas of various races and ethnicities would say, it’s not what’s said but how it’s said. (timeline, source notes, selected bibliography, index) (Biography. 9-12)