Comment: Celebrating independence while facing inequality

The 19th century essayist Paul Dunbar challenged white Americans to confront the racism borne from slavery.

By Gene Andrew Jarrett / Special To The Washington Post

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Americans across the country — from his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, to the numerous places where high schools bear his name — will celebrate this African American as a prodigy of his time, rivaled by few ever since.

By the time Dunbar died on Feb. 9, 1906, at the age of 33, he was renowned for being a prolific writer. His network of friends and admirers included Orville Wright, a high school classmate who went on to co-invent the airplane with his brother Wilbur, and Theodore Roosevelt, then governor of New York and, later, president of the United States.

But Dunbar matters not simply because he wrote and recited literature that the educated and the elite enjoyed. Even at a young age, he was a spokesperson for African American experiences, articulating clearly the challenges his people faced since the era of slavery. The lessons he learned and taught to all who would listen are crucial for us to remember today: how regional evidence of Black political progress — or setbacks — can serve as a bellwether for racial progress at the national level.

Dunbar matured as a professional writer after the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, a time of profound political and constitutional changes that bolstered the ability of African Americans to elect Black leaders and combat racial prejudice, injustice and inequality.

During this time, the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865 formally ended slavery, while the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, accorded citizenship to African Americans and certified the rights of citizens to due process and equality before the law.

In 1870, the 15th Amendment declared the rights of citizens to vote regardless of their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In addition, the Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1871 and 1875 aimed to add further legal protections and assurances of equal treatment for African Americans.

Despite these signs of progress for Black Americans on the national stage, Dunbar noticed that, in the decades after the end of Reconstruction, many setbacks still occurred at the local level; and he used his literary talents to draw attention to them.

For example, he published a searing essay, “The Race Question Discussed,” about the violent clash on Nov. 10, 1898, in Wilmington, N.C., between the Black quest for democratic prosperity and the white revolt against it. Wilmington was home to some 14,000 African Americans, many of whom were skilled professionals and entrepreneurs who leveraged their economic and electoral power to support local issues that served their own community.

The success of this community ended up fueling white resentment and efforts to limit Black economic independence and voting rights. Tensions came to a head on that fateful day in early November, when approximately 2,000 white residents rioted, overtaking the local police, rampaging through Black neighborhoods and massacring hundreds. Thousands of African American survivors fled, forced out of a city where they had once held some power.

The massacre in Wilmington so provoked Dunbar that, in his essay, he asserted that the injustice in North Carolina was indicative of something greater: the “race spirit in the United States is not local but general.” He argued that African Americans had already endured great sacrifice in the name of freedom, fighting heroically in the Civil War and then pursuing political and economic uplift after Emancipation. They would not regress and accept disfranchisement. He pledged that racial progress would continue despite white resistance.

“The Race Question Discussed” would turn out to be one of Dunbar’s most popular essays. After its original run in December 1898, the piece was reprinted in newspapers across the country. Dunbar received letters of support from those who read it, including from the Toledo mayor, Samuel M. Jones, who affirmed Dunbar’s sense of urgency, arguing, “We need and must have a new Emancipation Proclamation.”

Five years after he published his essay on the Wilmington massacre, Dunbar wrote what was perhaps his boldest condemnation of the racism he observed in America. The “fine irony” he laid out in this Independence Day essay for the New York Times in 1903 was titled “The Fourth of July and Race Outrages,” and in it he recalled an address delivered by Frederick Douglass, the great African American orator and statesman whom Dunbar once regarded as a mentor.

At the apex of Douglass’s 1852 address, also delivered in honor of Independence Day, he called out “the great sin and shame of America!” With comparable rhetorical flourish and fervor, Dunbar incorporated the same points to highlight the way Douglass’ address continued to ring true. Dunbar remarked: “A new and more dastardly slavery there has arisen to replace the old. For the sake of re-enslaving the Negro, the Constitution has been trampled under feet.”

The fury flowing from Dunbar’s pen was incited by the signs of racial bigotry and violence elsewhere: North and South, locally and nationally. Slavery had been reincarnated as racial prejudice, discrimination and terror against African Americans. Though decades apart, both Douglass and his mentee indicted America for its hypocrisy, shaming those who celebrated the birth of the nation but sought to deny its democratic fruits to Black Americans.

Like Dunbar’s essay on Wilmington, “The Fourth of July and Race Outrages” was reprinted in newspapers across the country, widening the audience for his writing and the sense that he was not only a masterful poet but also a thoughtful polemicist. He was eager to confront and explain the great problems of his era, in both local and national terms.

As we prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July, the national holiday honoring the creation of our democratic republic, we might look to Dunbar and his writing. He keenly understood how local crises and catastrophes afflicting African American people could portend challenges ahead for the nation. The murder of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street and the mass shooting of African Americans in a Buffalo supermarket are, on the one hand, local tragedies experienced by those communities, but it is important to follow in the footsteps of Dunbar — who was so prescient a thinker — and discern representative, national meaning from them.

Gene Andrew Jarrett is dean of the faculty and William S. Tod professor of English at Princeton University, and author of “Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Life and Times of a Caged Bird,” newly released by Princeton University Press.

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