26 pages 52 minutes read

Paul Laurence Dunbar

An Ante-Bellum Sermon

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1895

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

“An Ante-Bellum Sermon” was written by the African-American poet, short story writer, and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar. The poem was originally published in Dunbar’s second poetry collection Majors and Minors (1895) within a section of the volume aptly titled “Humor and Dialect.” Written in a distinctive dialect approximating the Black Southern accent, “An Ante-Bellum Sermon” is an often humorous depiction of a traditional message from a Black slave preacher. However, lurking beneath that humor, unique diction, and numerous biblical allusions is a revolutionary undercurrent, as the poem incites and encourages its enslaved, Black audience to hope for change.

Although Dunbar was a four-time novelist, his relatively short career as a writer was defined by his poetry, which was split into two categories for the majority of that career. Dunbar himself made that distinction by titling his collection Majors and Minors, with his standard English poetry being classified as “Majors” and his dialect poetry “Minors.” His “Major” poems typically expressed more elevated thoughts than his more rustic and cheerful “Minor” poems. Inspired by the Romantic period, these “Major” poems spanned such topics as love, nature, and—frequently—racial injustice, such as in the famous poems “Sympathy” and “We Wear the Mask.” Although classified as a “Minor” poem, “An Ante-Bellum Sermon” combines elements from both categories. Like Dunbar’s famous dialect poems “When Malindy Sings” and “A Banjo Song,” “An Ante-Bellum Sermon” attempts to authentically replicate the dialect and attitude of Southern Black culture, but like some of Dunbar’s more serious “Major” poems, it also voices the author’s discontent at the precarious position of Black people in America. “An Ante-Bellum Sermon” thus represents the dual literary nature of “America’s first great black poet” (Poetry Foundation, “Paul Laurence Dunbar”).

Poet Biography

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872 in Dayton, Ohio to Mathilda and Joshua Dunbar, both former slaves from Kentucky. The couple separated when Dunbar was only a few years old, so Dunbar’s childhood was spent solely with his mother, who learned to read in order to help him with schoolwork. Although born after the emancipation of slaves in America, the young Dunbar became intimately familiar with injustices committed against his race. His mother did not shy from sharing her experiences as a house slave, and her friends likewise informed him of the trauma caused by slavery. Dunbar’s youthful curiosity about the history of Black slaves would persist into adulthood, and he would continue “to seek out former slaves and spend hours listening to their stories about life under slavery” throughout his career (Fishkin, Shelley. “Race and the Politics of Memory: Mark Twain and Paul Laurence Dunbar,” Journal of American Studies, Vol. 40, 2. 2006. p 292).

Dunbar’s early childhood also saw the beginnings of what would later become his profession. He wrote his first poem at just six years old and performed his first public recital when he was nine. This propensity for writing continued when he entered high school. Although the only Black student, Dunbar was quite popular among his classmates, who elected him president of the school’s literary society. Dunbar also became the editor of the school newspaper and the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper published by classmate and future aviation pioneer Orville Wright. Before Dunbar had even graduated from high school he had published the poems “Our Martyred Soldiers” and “On the River” in the Dayton Herald.

Despite Dunbar’s many intellectual accomplishments and his promise as a writer, insufficient funds barred him from attending university. Furthermore, repeated racial discrimination from potential employers forced him to take a low-paying job as an elevator operator. These setbacks did not stall Dunbar’s poetic career for long, however. During his free time, he composed articles, short stories, and poems. It was during Dunbar’s time as an elevator operator that a former teacher invited him to present his poetry at a meeting of the Western Association of Writers in 1892. In attendance was James Newton Matthews, whom Dunbar so impressed that he wrote a letter commending the poet in an Illinois newspaper. This letter brought Dunbar national attention, and one of his new admirers was the “Hoosier Poet” James Whitcomb Riley, who was one of Dunbar’s greatest poetic inspirations. Matthews’ and Riley’s encouragement prompted Dunbar to self-publish his first poetry collection Oak and Ivy (1893), which he sold for a dollar to people riding his elevator. This first collection, which featured socially conscious poems like “Ode to Ethiopia” and “Sympathy,” was split between the larger section “Oak” (poems written in standard English) and the smaller “Ivy” section (poems written in dialect), a binary Dunbar maintained for much of his career.

Although Dunbar’s success was not immediate, by 1895 many of his poems had appeared in national magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times. He next published Majors and Minors in 1895, and his “Minor” or dialect poems caught the attention of novelist and literary critic William Dean Howells, whose glowing review of the book fostered Dunbar’s national celebrity. This new fame allowed Dunbar to combine his previously self-published poetry collections into the traditionally published volume Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896), which featured an introduction by Howells. The poetry collection was a notable success across America and prompted Dunbar to embark on a six-month literary tour of England in 1897. While abroad, Dunbar presented and performed his poems on the London circuit where he met the Black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The two worked together to produce the operetta “Dream Lovers” (1898), the first of Dunbar’s musical endeavors. Dunbar also began writing his first novel The Uncalled (1898) at this time.

Once he returned to America, Dunbar began working as a clerk at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, Dunbar’s health began to rapidly decline when he contracted tuberculosis, possibly aggravated by the dust in the library. Because of his poor health, Dunbar lived only intermittently in Washington for the next two years. However, these two years brought a number of important life experiences. Dunbar eloped with fellow African-American writer and schoolteacher Alice Ruth Moore in 1898, composed lyrics for multiple musical collaborations, and published his first short story collection Folks from Dixie (1898), an examination of Black people’s position in ante-bellum and post-bellum America. The collection was critically well-received, unlike Dunbar’s first novel published that same year, the Nathaniel Hawthorne-inspired The Uncalled (1898). Dunbar also produced two additional volumes of poetry, Lyrics of the Hearthside (1899) and Poems of Cabin and Field (1899).

When Dunbar’s health worsened, he left his job at the Library of Congress and moved to Colorado with his wife in 1900, where they lived only briefly before returning to Washington. Prescribed whiskey to alleviate his chronic cough, Dunbar soon became an alcoholic, and his already tense marriage became even more fraught. During this short time in Colorado, Dunbar published the short story collection The Strength of Gideon (1900), which once again explored the effects of slavery, and the novel The Love of Landry (1900). Within the year, Dunbar returned to Washington and soon afterward published the poetry collection Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1901) and his third and most unsuccessful novel, The Fanatics (1901).

In 1902, Dunbar published his final novel, The Sport of the Gods. Although the novel’s “acclaim was hardly unanimous” (“Paul Laurence DunbarPoetry Foundation), it was still Dunbar’s most critically praised novel, and its brutal depiction of a Black family torn apart by the cruelty of both the post-war North and South has ensured the novel’s significance in Dunbar’s literary canon to this day. Not long after the success of The Sport of the Gods, Dunbar and Alice Moore separated, and Dunbar fell into a deep depression and an even deeper dependence on alcohol. Despite a worsening illness and a nervous breakdown caused by his failed marriage, Dunbar was as prolific as ever in his final years. He published the poetry collections Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903) and Howdy, Howdy, Howdy (1905), and he composed the lyrics to the first Black-written and performed Broadway musical In Dahomey (1903). Dunbar also published two more short story collections: the controversial but commercially lucrative In Old Plantation Days (1903) and the more politically conscious The Heart of Happy Hollow (1904).

The final two years of Dunbar’s life were spent once again in Dayton, Ohio at his mother’s house. For Dunbar, these years were “marked by illness and loneliness” (Turner, Darwin. “Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Poet and the Myths,” CLA Journal, Vol. 18, 2. 1974, p 163). Although he continued to write, Dunbar’s sustained dependence on alcohol worsened his condition, and he became fatally ill in the winter of 1905. On February 9, 1906, Paul Laurence Dunbar died of tuberculosis at 33 years old.

Poem Text

We is gathahed hyeah, my brothahs,

  In dis howlin' wildaness,

Fu' to speak some words of comfo't

  To each othah in distress.

An' we chooses fu' ouah subjic'

  Dis—we'll 'splain it by an' by;

"An' de Lawd said, 'Moses, Moses,'

  An' de man said 'Hyeah am I.'''

Now ole Pher'oh, down in Egypt,

  Was de wuss man evah bo'n,

An' he had de Hebrew chillun

  Down dah wukin' in his co'n;

'T well de Lawd got tiahed o' his foolin',

  An' sez he: "I'll let him know—

Look hyeah, Moses, go tell Pher'oh

  Fu' to let dem chillun go."

"An' ef he refuse to do it,

  I will make him rue de houah,

Fu' I'll empty down on Egypt

  All de vials of my powah."

Yes, he did—an' Pher'oh's ahmy

  Was n't wuth a ha'f a dime;

Fu' de Lawd will he'p his chillun,

  You kin trust him evah time.

An' yo' enemies may 'sail you

  In de back an' in de front;

But de Lawd is all aroun' you,

  Fu' to ba' de battle's brunt.

Dey kin fo'ge yo' chains an' shackles

  F'om de mountains to de sea;

But de Lawd will sen' some Moses

  Fu' to set his chillun free.

An' de lan' shall hyeah his thundah,

  Lak a blas' f'om Gab'el's ho'n,

Fu' de Lawd of hosts is mighty

  When he girds his ahmor on.

But fu' feah some one mistakes me,

  I will pause right hyeah to say,

Dat I'm still a-preachin' ancient,

  I ain't talkin' 'bout to-day.

But I tell you, fellah christuns,

  Things'll happen mighty strange;

Now, de Lawd done dis fu' Isrul,

  An' his ways don't nevah change,

An' de love he showed to Isrul

  Was n't all on Isrul spent;

Now don't run an' tell yo' mastahs

  Dat I's preachin' discontent.

'Cause I is n't; I'se a-judgin'

  Bible people by deir ac's;

I'se a-givin' you de Scriptuah,

  I'se a-handin' you de fac's.

Cose ole Pher'oh b'lieved in slav'ry,

  But de Lawd he let him see,

Dat de people he put bref in,—

  Evah mothah's son was free.

An' dahs othahs thinks lak Pher'oh,

  But dey calls de Scriptuah liar,

Fu' de Bible says "a servant

  Is a-worthy of his hire."

An' you cain't git roun' nor thoo dat

  An' you cain't git ovah it,

Fu' whatevah place you git in,

  Dis hyeah Bible too 'll fit.

So you see de Lawd's intention,

  Evah sence de worl' began,

Was dat His almighty freedom

  Should belong to evah man,

But I think it would be bettah,

  Ef I'd pause agin to say,

Dat I'm talkin' 'bout ouah freedom

  In a Bibleistic way.

But de Moses is a-comin',

  An' he's comin', suah and fas'

We kin hyeah his feet a-trompin',

  We kin hyeah his trumpit blas'.

But I want to wa'n you people,

  Don't you git too brigity;

An' don't you git to braggin'

  'Bout dese things, you wait an' see.

But when Moses wif his powah

  Comes an' sets us chillun free,

We will praise de gracious Mastah

  Dat has gin us liberty;

An' we'll shout ouah halleluyahs,

  On dat mighty reck'nin' day,

When we'se reco'nised ez citiz'—

  Huh uh! Chillun, let us pray!

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “An Ante-Bellum Sermon.” 1895. Majors and Minors.

Summary

“An Ante-Bellum Sermon” begins with an address from the speaker, a Black preacher, to his “brothahs” (Line 1), the church congregation. He acknowledges they have “gathahed hyeah” (Line 1) in the “howlin’ wildaness” (Line 2) to hear “some words of comfo’t” (Line 3). His audience of Black slaves have gathered in “distress” (Line 4), and the preacher determines to offer them some comfort by discussing the story of Moses. He directly quotes the meeting of God and Moses in the third chapter of Exodus (Line 8) and embarks upon his full sermon.

In the second stanza, the preacher elaborates on the context of Moses’ story. He introduces the Egyptian Pharaoh, “de wuss man evah bo’n” (Line 10), who forced the Hebrew race to work as slaves in his corn fields (Line 12). The preacher states that God got “tiahed” of this Pharaoh’s “foolin’” (Line 13) and sent Moses as his messenger to command Pharaoh to “let dem chillun go” (Line 16) from his field. The preacher speaks as God and describes how, should Pharaoh “refuse” (Line 17) to free the slaves, he will “empty down on Egypt” (Line 19) all of his power and will make Pharaoh “rue de houah” (Line 18) he crossed God’s people. The preacher delights in the knowledge that, just as God destroyed Pharaoh’s army and proved they were only “wuth a ha’f a dime” (Line 22), he will similarly destroy any enemy his children face.

After the preacher assures his congregation they “kin trust [God] evah time” (Line 24), he speculates about the different dangers they may face and how God will always protect them. Whether enemies “’sail” (Line 25) or assail them from the “back” or the “front” (Line 26), God will bear the “battle’s brunt” (Line 28) for them. The next scenario the preacher postulates is less hypothetical and far more real to his congregation. Even if their enemies “fo’ge ... chains an’ shackles” (Line 29), God will send “some Moses” (Line 31) to “set his chillun free” (Line 32). The land “shall hyeah his thundah” (Line 33) when God “girds his ahmor on” (Line 36) to do battle. This threatening and potentially seditious language prompts the preacher to hastily add a disclaimer to his sermon. For “fear some one mistakes” (Line 37) him and believes he is preaching against their masters, the preacher interrupts his sermon to clarify that he is “still a-preachin’ ancient” (Line 39) and not speaking about “to-day” (Line 40) and its politics.

Despite his disclaimer, the preacher immediately returns to his original subject matter, informing his “fellah christuns” (Line 41) that what the Lord “done…fu’ Isrul” (Line 43) he will do again for them. Because “his ways don’t nevah change” (Line 44), God will show the same “love” (Line 45) he felt for Israel to them. The preacher then urges his congregation not to tell their “mastahs” (Line 47) he preached “discontent” (Line 48), since he was merely “a-judgin’ / Bible people by deir ac’s” (Lines 49-50). The preacher only did what he was allowed to by his white overseers, which was teach his congregation the “fac’s” (Line 52) of scripture. His critique of white slave owners continues in the next lines where he argues that Pharaoh “b’lieved in slav’ry” (Line 53) until God made “him see” (Line 54) by force that every “mothah’s son was free” (Line 56), yet, there are still “othahs” who think “lak Pher’oh” (Line 57) and disregard scripture as a “liar” (Line 58) since they do not follow its teachings on slavery and servitude (Lines 59-60). The Bible condemns slavery, and there is no way to get “roun’ nor thoo dat” (Line 61).

Now that the preacher has established the “Lawd’s intention” (Line 65) that every man should experience “His almighty freedom” (Line 67), he once again pauses to assure any potentially censorious listeners that he is only “talkin’ ‘bout ouah freedom / In a Bibleistic way” (Lines 71-72). He is not speaking his own opinions; he is merely representing biblical fact. His message of hope reaches its climax when he announces that Moses “is a comin’” (Line 73) “suah and fas’” (Line 74) to free them. The preacher decides “to wa’n you people” (Line 77) not to “git too brigity” (Line 78) or self-important, as they shall soon realize the truth.

In the final stanza, the preacher describes the joy the Black slaves shall feel once Moses “wif his powah” (Line 81) sets them free. They shall “praise de gracious Mastah” (Line 83) God who gave them “liberty” (Line 84). They will “shout” their “halleluyahs” (Line 85) on God’s “reck’nin day” (Line 86) for their enemies. On that day, the speaker claims, they shall be “reco’nised ez citiz’—” (Line 87). The preacher cuts himself off, leaving his thought unfinished to prevent overstepping his boundary as a slave. He cannot currently speak of his people’s eventual emancipation and equality as American citizens, so he decides to wait and “pray” (Line 88) for that future to arrive. 

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