Afaa Michael Weaver reads and discusses Paul Laurence Dunbar's "Little Brown Baby"
Little Brown Baby
Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes, Come to yo' pappy an' set on his knee. What you been doin', suh — makin' san' pies? Look at dat bib — you's es du'ty ez me. Look at dat mouf — dat's merlasses, I bet; Come hyeah, Maria, an' wipe off his han's. Bees gwine to ketch you an' eat you up yit, Bein' so sticky an sweet — goodness lan's! Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes, Who's pappy's darlin' an' who's pappy's chile? Who is it all de day nevah once tries Fu' to be cross, er once loses dat smile? Whah did you git dem teef? My, you's a scamp! Whah did dat dimple come f'om in yo' chin? Pappy do' know you — I b'lieves you's a tramp; Mammy, dis hyeah's some ol' straggler got in! Let's th'ow him outen de do' in de san', We do' want stragglers a-layin' 'roun' hyeah; Let's gin him 'way to de big buggah-man; I know he's hidin' erroun' hyeah right neah. Buggah-man, buggah-man, come in de do', Hyeah's a bad boy you kin have fu' to eat. Mammy an' pappy do' want him no mo', Swaller him down f'om his haid to his feet! Dah, now, I t'ought dat you'd hug me up close. Go back, ol' buggah, you sha'n't have dis boy. He ain't no tramp, ner no straggler, of co'se; He's pappy's pa'dner an' play-mate an' joy. Come to you' pallet now — go to yo' res'; Wisht you could allus know ease an' cleah skies; Wisht you could stay jes' a chile on my breas'— Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes!
—Paul Laurence Dunbar
This poem is in the public domain.
My name is Afaa Michael Weaver, and I will be reading “Little Brown Baby” by Paul Laurence Dunbar.
I am always inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s work. He had such a struggle—he wrote under censorship and under the pressure of the popular tastes of the day—and when I think about the evolution of the identity of African Americans, I think about this poem in terms of the period in which it was written: the period of blackface minstrelsy, and how the American character was an imposition on the African American, but also in that interface between the two larger cultures. It was much more than that, much more diverse, but there are these central questions of self-representation. And in the need to write according to plantation dialect—things that were really popular in that day—in this particular poem, I find the treasure of the love of the father for the child, and I think of African American men and their evolution as men in the context of the racial history of this country.
So it does, for me, deepen and complicate conventional notions of identity inasmuch as I’d say that we still have these issues happening. Is the struggle with English—American English, as African Americans writing poetry—and the struggle, in a very large way, with what we call hip hop culture and representation, self-representation? Mimicry from the larger society on to the African American, and in many ways exportation of African American culture? And the push and the drive for resilience that still comes from inside African American culture—when we look at hip hop, we look at the interface between Latino/Latina American culture and African American, which makes it much more complex.
I relate to the speaker in the poem as an African American father and someone who comes from inside the poor working class structure inside African American culture (which is a very large piece of it historically), and what it means to represent myself to my son, and to my brother, and to also represent to my father and my relationship with him. This evolution around language—my family came from Virginia and North Carolina, and in my home, the ethos was Southern, and that is a complex issue and representation of poetry. I find inspiration in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s courage and his integrity.
And so, he was a great poet, and I think we should revisit the pressures of the time and understand that some of those pressures are still very much with us: self-representation, the ability to tell one’s story in one’s own way, and what that means for the larger evolution of American culture. Thank you, Paul Laurence Dunbar.
It is the tightness in the gut when the load is heavy enough to knock me over backwards, turn me back on my heel until my ankle cracks and I holler out Jesus, this Jesus of Joe Gans setting up for the next punch while taking in one that just made his soul wobble, the grunt I make when the shift is young, my body a heavy meat on bones, conveyors not wired for compassion, trucks on deadlines, uncaring pressure of a nation waiting to be washed, made clean, me looking into the eye of something like death, and I look up, throwing fifty pound boxes, Jesus now John Henry pounding visions of what work is, the wish for black life to crumble, snap under all it is given, these three souls of spirit, hands like hammers, a hammer like the word made holy, word echoing a scripture from inside the wise mind that knows men cannot be makers, that in making we want to break each other, ache moving us to refuse to surrender to time in factories, catacombs feeding on the spirit.
—Afaa M. Weaver
Afaa Michael Weaver
Afaa Michael Weaver (1951- ) was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and educated at the University of Maryland, Brown University, and Excelsior College. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Spirit Boxing (2017), as well as pieces of short fiction and two plays. His numerous honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, as well as a Fulbright Scholar appointment to Taiwan. Weaver has taught at the City University of New York, New York University, Rutgers University, Simmons College, Drew University, and National Taiwan University, among others. Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was born in Dayton, Ohio. The author of several novels, short stories, and essays, he is most known for his dialectic poems in collections such as Oak and Ivy (1893), Majors and Minors (1895), and Lyrics of Lowly Life (1895). He was one of the first influential black poets in American literature, and his work has been acclaimed for its representation of black life in turn-of-the-century America.