Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 October 2020
This essay argues that the georgic poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar offer his most incisive representations of the hardships faced by African Americans after Reconstruction. Written in the context of Jim Crow laws, vagrancy statutes, and other coercive means of restricting the mobility of southern blacks and extracting compulsory labor from them, these poems present the hard agrarian work characteristic of the rural Black Belt. They confront the pervasive rhetoric of racial uplift through labor, popularized by Booker T. Washington, that dominates American social discourse on race in the late nineteeth and early twentieth centuries, by revealing the negative freedom of black agrarian labor. At the same time, these poems assert the humanity and blamelessness of African Americans in the face of institutional racism. The essay aims to recast Dunbar's legacy by turning attention from his dialect poetry toward his georgic analyses of the uneven modernization of racialized labor.