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On "When Malindy Sings"


Peter Revell

One of the most popular of Dunbar’s dialect poems was and is "When Malindy Sings," which builds upon the natural ability of the race in song and is ackowledged to be Dunbar’s tribute to his mother’s spontaneous outbursts of singing as she worked in the kitchen. The message of the poem is one of praise for simpilicity of spirit and the love of God, but the reader is jolted into a humorous view of the situation as he comes to stanze six. Dunbar’s ability to check excessive sentiment is well demonstarted in this poem.

From Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979. Copyright 1979 by G.K. Hall & Co.


Kenny J. Williams

It made little difference to those who read "When Malindy Sings" that Dunbar had never been South when his first dialect poems were written, that his dialect was in essence his tribute to his idols James Whitcomb Riley, Will Pfrimmer, and John Greenleaf Whittier, that his only contact with the days of slavery came from his parents, both of whom were ex-slaves and who had told him stories of the antebellum days, that his mother tried to keep as much unpleasantness as possible from her young son, and that he was bortn in Dayton, Ohio, where he grew up in a substantially all-white society.

From "The Masking of the Novelist," in A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Jay Martin. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1975. Copyright 1975 by Jay Martin.


Joanne M. Braxton

Dunbar's dialect poetry is rich in drama, irony, understatement, hyperbole, and caricature. The dual voice of Dunbar's poems is a natural result of the double vision that Dunbar inherited as a black and an American and that threatened to tear him apart. His creation of a double voice in his poetry allowed him to speak to two distinct audiences at once. In fact, Dunbar's use of caricature often renders whites more comic than blacks. In "When Malindy Sings," a poem written as a tribute to Dunbar's mother, Matilda, the dialect narrator addresses Miss Lucy.

G'way an' quit dat noise, Miss Lucy—
Put dat music book away;
What's de use to keep on tryin'?
Ef you practise twell you're gray...

You ain't got de nachel o'gans
Fu' to make de soun' come right,
You ain't got de tu'ns an' twistin's
Fu' to make it sweet an' light....

Easy 'nough fu' folk to hollah,
Lookin' at de lines an' dots,
When dey ain't no one kin sence it,
An' de chune comes in, in spots.

Using irony, caricature, and understatement, Dunbar here "signifies" on the whites' assumption of biological and intellectual superiority as well as their ability to read books and music. With all these supposed assets, Miss Lucy can't sing "right"; no amount of practice will render her singing "sweet an' light." And even her ability to "read" is suspect, with the tune coming in "in spots." Malindy may be the subject of the poem, but she is not the one being put down here. The comic use of dialect in "When Malindy Sings" cuts two ways, masking the speaker's critique of a white woman he is not free to criticize openly.

from The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Joanne M. Braxton. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. Copyright 1993 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.


John Keeling

 

While we may find it easy to be drawn into the speaker's point of view, the concrete details of the poem, those which interrupt the narrative, force us to call into question the speaker's excessive sentiment. We might note first that Malindy never appears in the poem; the only singing represented is that of Miss Lucy, whose song is described by the narrator as "dat noise." In fact, it is the futility of Lucy's dedication to singing—"Put dat music book away; / What's de use to keep on tryin'?"—that launches the speaker into his tribute to Malindy. In effect, the poem begins with the discord of Miss Lucy's song which the speaker attempts to restructure into harmony. Unfortunately for the speaker, just as his embellishment reaches its peak (with the "sinnahs" crying at Malindy's feet), he is interrupted by a blues voice of dissension. We can infer what the listener's comment was by the speaker's response:

In these lines not only is the efficacy of the gospel questioned but, perhaps, the very existence of Malindy as well. In the next stanza the speaker attempts to continue but is completely undermined as we reach the final stanza:

Instead of Malindy we are introduced to Mandy, and, with the image of the crying child, harmony has once again fallen into discord. The speaker's failure to harmonize leaves him desperate—"Let me listen, I can hyeah it"—and somewhat alienated from Mandy and the rest. Yet there is a sense that in the last lines Malindy's song has taken on a more poignant, personal relevance for the speaker, in the sense that his narrative's fictiveness has been exposed. We might even imagine the speaker singing the final three lines (with all of those long vowel sounds), beginning a kind of blues song out of the narrative which fails. In such a reading, Dunbar undermines the stereotype of the gospel singer Malindy and, at the same time, affirms the power of blues creativity. The speaker's exaggeration is subverted, but his creativity, faith, and spirit are confirmed.

from "Paul Dunbar and the Mask of Dialect." Southern Literary Journal 25:2, (Spring 1993).


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