how language and meaning are shaped by culture and
context, using a poem by Paul Dunbar.
Paul Dunbar: American poet and writer, late 19th and early 20th
centuries. He learned to read and write at a young age. His mother often read
the bible with him.
Born in Ohio, to parents who had been enslaved, (in Kentucky).
Many of his verse and short stories were written in dialect. Although he
had works in “normal” English, his works written in dialect are mostly what he
is best known for. Paul Dunbar was one of the first African-Americans writer to
achieve national eminence.
The Emancipation proclamation, issued by president Abraham Lincoln on
September 22nd 1862, stated that the slaves “shall be, then, thenceforward and forever free”. Although it did not free the slaves, it was a critical
point in the war as it transformed it to a strife for human rights. An
institution was established by the president, thorough which African-Americans
could join the U.S. Army.
The slaves still experienced racial discrimination and
were treated as inferior and as property.
The title of the text is, when
they listed colored soldiers, and was published in 1896.
The structure reveals that the text is a poem. The text has 5 stanzas,
each with 8 lines. Almost the whole text written is written in rhyming
couplets. It uses some figurative devices, such as anaphora (when BUT is
repeated) and epiphora (when war is). When looking closer to the text, one will
notice that it looks different from the conventional English that we are used
to. This is called the AAFE.
Or the African
American vernacular English , is a dialect of English, mostly spoken by
working- and middle-class African Americans. Due to historical relation with
the Southern United States, AAVE shares a considerable section of its grammar
and phonology with Southern American English. Another theory states that AAVE,
was influenced by Languages from West Africa.
/The use of AAVE in the poem would appeal to people from the south.
People from the south would recognize and appreciate this dialect.
sound changes to
Rs and Gs.
Some examples include” Den and Dey” which are “then”
and “they”. “Wid grievin” is “With Griving”. And we can also see the missing R
In summary, the poem parallels the experiences of both black and white
women that are left behind, following the departure of the men for war. The
poem is told as a story, and so is a narrative poem. The story includes characters, Elias, old miss
and master jack, and young miss and her brother Ned, as well as a plot, which is Elias, Neds and
Master Jacks departure to war
The poem is written from a First-person perspective of an enslaved black
woman whose son is going to war. We know that from her “my Lias” and “Step up,
manny”, when she saw him on the street, and by “Master Jack”.
The poem end with the black woman sympathizing with the white women (the
old and young misses) and accepting that her beloved Elias was gone. This
attempts to set black and white women on the same level and show their
similarities. Both experienced loss of dear ones to the war. Dunbar, perhaps
attempted to show that the slaves were able to feel sympathy, if it was doubted or unknown at the time, it was now
proven. “he told me that his conscience, it was calling
him to do so”.
The purpose is to, change perception of the slaves, since they were seen as inferior.
Through this, we can identify another audience that is targeted. People
that still discriminate against African-Americans, in 1896 when the poem was
written, after the emancipation proclamation.
show that African-Americans have the right for citizenship. He was willing to sacrifice himself. (Wid de flag dat he had fit for shinin daith acrost his
With this image of the shining
flag, Dunbar attempted to promote the feelings of nationality of the readers.
He wanted the audience to have a feeling of mercy towards the black soldier.
The tone is used create emotions in the reader as the story progresses.
The tone ranges from mysteriou “They was
whispering mighty much”,
to imploring “I begged him not to go” and to benevolent “When the women cried and moaned them, I could fell it through
In order to achieve the purpose of portraying black people as equal to
whites, the reader must be able to relate to the speaker.
In the poem, the speaker is seen as compassionate, warmhearted, humane
and merciful. This is achieved through firstly, the language. AAFE is an accent
similar to the southern American English. People from the south would be able
to recognize the accent and relate. The use of an accent would also make her
seem more humane, it reflects the way she really is and her true personality.
Secondly, The gender roles in the poem, is something that everyone has
experienced or knows about. The males are expected to go to war and the females
stay at home.
In addition, the speaker, being a woman, is assumed to be easier to feel
for, especially since she is also a mother.
Another factor that might make people relate to the speaker, is
religion. At the time, most people were religious and so was the speaker. We
could see it through several remarks on religion, Christianity. “when they let us out of church”, “Give him pap’s old bible
from the bottom of the draw” and “What God had called him for”.
In conclusion, he speaker’s actions, are perhaps what leaves the reader
with an emotional impression. The way the black women felt sympathy for people
that had kept her enslaved, shows the true nature of the women. It makes the
reader not only relate to the women but also feel sorry for her. In this way,
Dunbar attempted to change the way Americans perceived the slaves with his