Although it had been written by white and black poets alike, dialect poetry emerged as a significant part of African-American writing in the mid-1890s with the success of its first well-known black practitioner, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and it played a dominant role in African-American poetry until World War I. It figured prominently in black-edited newspapers and periodicals and in virtually all of the many collections of verse by the black poets of the time. Among its leading creators, in addition to Dunbar, were James Edwin Campbell, Daniel Webster Davis, James D. Corrothers, James Weldon Johnson, Elliot Blaine Henderson, and Fenton Johnson.
Much of the earliest African-American dialect poetry was inspired by, and a response to, the highly successful work of white plantation-tradition writers, who, evoking nostalgic images of the Old South, used dialect in a way that furthered negative racial stereotypes. This plantation-tradition background was apparent in the work of black dialect poets, who drew on it thematically and wrote in a dialect that—rarely going beyond fairly conventionalized misspellings—owed more to that white literary tradition than to actual folk speech. The opening of Dunbar's "Lover's Lane" was fairly typical in its language and tone: "Summah night an' sighin' breeze, / 'Long de lovah's lane; / Frien'ly, shadder-mekin' trees, / 'Long de lovah's lane." Some dialect poets even came close to their white counterparts in both nostalgia and the use of stereotypes. Davis, for example, penned a tribute to the slave-owning plantation mistress, "Ol' Mistis," fondly describing life on the plantation and including such lines as "Ub all de plezzun mem'riz' / Dar's one dat fills my heart, / 'Tiz de thought ub dear ol' Mistis, / An' 'twill nebber frum me part."
But most dialect poets, including Dunbar and even Davis, sought to use the problematic plantation-tradition background in a way that rescued both the form and its subjects from the more demeaning aspects of the tradition on which they drew. These poets often made use of actual folk sources, subtly subverting the stereotypes white writers portrayed, as in Dunbar's "An Ante-bellum Sermon," in which a slave preacher turns a message of heavenly freedom into a barely disguised anticipation of the day "when we'se rec'onised as citiz'—/Huh uh! Chillun, let us pray!" or even working to create a dialect poetry of protest against racial oppression, as when Elliot Blaine Henderson wrote of black American life in a South where "Dey lynch him on de lef' / An' dey lynch him on de right." In so doing, the poets moved dialect poetry away from caricature and even, in the view of some writers and critics of the time, toward the presentation of a distinctive African-American cultural heritage rooted in the folk life of the rural South.
Following World War I, dialect poetry lost much of its prominence in African-American literature. Many writers, especially during the Harlem Renaissance, became more troubled by the form's lingering association with plantation-tradition writing while agreeing with the famous 1922 statement of James Weldon Johnson, rejecting his own earlier work, that dialect poetry was severely constrained as a form, limited to little more than humor and pathos. Still, a few poets, notably Langston Hughes, experimented with it. And, toward the end of the Renaissance period, with the 1932 publication of Sterling Brown's Southern Road, dialect poetry—which Brown strongly defended against Johnson's strictures—received a major, if somewhat isolated, re-elaboration.
It would be difficult to argue for any direct connection between the dialect tradition and contemporary African-American poetry. Nevertheless, many of the impulses that took shape within that older body of writing have been notable in more recent work as well. Beginning particularly with the black arts movement in the 1960s, a number of poets have sought to put distinctively African-American forms of speech to poetic use. Their work, having a flavor that is both urban and militant, is very different from the dialect poetry of Dunbar or even Brown. Growing out of an urban milieu and out of specifically urban speech, this later vernacular poetry represents a self-conscious rejection of dominant literary models and of dominant cultural models. Still, the earlier dialect poets remain important precursors to this more contemporary work. Above all, they help emphasize the length of a tradition into which it fits, a tradition marked by recurring efforts to create a distinctively African-American literature and cultural identity through the possibilities inherent in the representation of a unique folk life and a unique folk speech.
Bell, Bernard W. The Folk Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry. Detroit, Mich.: Broadside Press, 1974.
Gates, Henry Louis. "Dis and Dat: Dialect and the Descent" and "Songs of a Racial Self: On Sterling A. Brown." In Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self, pp. 167–195, 225–234. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
dickson d. bruce jr. (1996)