Book Review: Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow

The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore

Buy this book at! If you are looking for a reserved and “objective” book review, you are networking with the wrong packets, Huck. Other reviewers kindly and gracefully placed their criticisms of this book at the very end of their article. This page, I warn you, will do no such thing. But before my pathetic squabble begins, I must point out how this book changes my mind and thereby influences me:

  • I assumed that almost all heterosexual African Americans before the 1960s and after the 1860s wanted desperately to be married because they were not allowed to marry during slavery. Yes, the marriages might have been miserable—but such misery would be “heaven” compared to slavery. Instead, I find that Paul Laurence Dunbar is the buster-brown, poster boy of how marriage can be the misery of slavery. Paul packed all of the beatings and rapes (and sarcasm) a slave bitch would need.
  • I assumed that Paul Laurence Dunbar loved everything about himself—including the amount of melanin in his epidermis. I was wrong. He was repulsed by his own skin tone as much as W.E.B. Dubois hated Marcus Garvey’s complexion.
  • I assumed that W.E.B. had a happy marriage. I no longer can live with that assumption.
  • I assumed that a momma’s boy (like me) would have an almost crippling respect for women that would prevent them from being physically violent towards any woman—let alone stopping one on the street because she looks good. Paul Laurence Dunbar, drunkard and rapist, was a momma’s boy. Obviously, I am not an expert on sexist hate crime.
  • My mother gave me a laminated picture of Paul Laurence Dunbar that I stuck to my refrigerator with magnets. I am a poet. Paul is a poet. It seemed like the right thing to do. I took the picture down and threw it away.
  • If another person—usually a dandy, African-descended, male, out-of-work actor—at an open-mike poetry reading, gets up and begins to read work by Paul Laurence Dunbar (usually because they have no poetry of their own), I will feel irritated and not guilty about being irritated.

There is something missing when a non-literary person attempts to tackle a literary subject. Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow appears to be a tangible manifestation of the fears and concerns of Harold Bloom, author of the book How to Read and Why. We have an institutionalized scholar, the excellent researcher Eleanor Alexander, writing with all the talents of a highly advanced Google search algorithm. The book feels like a database dump from a powerful and expensive computer, searching the connected world using the keywords “Paul Lawrence Dunbar,” “rapist,” “Alice Ruth Moore,” “conjugal love,” “internal injuries,” “romance,” “19th Century North America,” “patriarchal violence”—and of course “feminism.”

It would be no surprise to discover that this work was originally meant for the eyes of a sympathetic college professor with a short attention span. Perhaps Ms. Alexander had to make sure this professor would clearly see when she is making a point. So it would then be prudent to repeat conclusions several times. Unfortunately, my shameful poverty prevents me from being so liberal with my sympathies. Once this college term paper was taken out of the academic arena and exposed to the lay public for sale, it is fair game for the likes of me. I am most upset with her pat treatment of two characters I greatly admire, Moses and Ida B. Wells.

But of course, Eleanor Alexander was not put on this Earth to serve my pleasures. Since I am a male (I daresay an antiquated heterosexual male), I must be surprised at this news. The bulk of this book is devoted to a pedestrian, 1970’s-style, feminist tirade on sexism and conjugal violence.

The author (with the help of other authors referenced in her notes) condemns Moses, my favorite Egyptian hierophant, and the laws concerning the rape of women in the book of Deuteronomy. These laws have nothing to do with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s need to control women as if he were a slave master but were surreptitiously dumped in to make a larger point about just how deep the disregard for women goes in The Western Tradition. Alexander might have been more effective to concentrate on the culture Moses would certainly have despised and the source of most of the stupidity Paul and Alice embraced: the “romance” of the Roman Republic (where a male had the right to kill his wife without question) and the “romance” of the Roman Empire (where an elite male had the right to own slaves to farm the land he had taken away from unsuspecting centurions—remember Spartacus?).

I think that it is quite interesting when the likes of Eugen Weber, professor of history at UCLA, draws a direct line between the same-sex, violence-based relationships of European feudal lords and their vassals and the culture of courtly love meant for a medieval knight and a noble woman. This romance comes from the devotion a Roman soldier of the imperium had for his general—starting with General Julius Caesar. I would have been very excited to see Eleanor Alexander draw a line from this medieval courtly love born under Caesar to the romantic love of the 19th century so the reader will see that any violence behind romance should not be surprising as its origins come from patriarchic, warlike, enslaving cultures.

But of course, Eleanor Alexander was not put on this Earth to serve my pleasures. Since I am a male (I daresay an antiquated heterosexual male), I must be surprised at this news. The bulk of this book is devoted to a pedestrian, 1970’s-style, feminist tirade on sexism and conjugal violence. Ms. Alexander emerged from her machine-like delivery of the facts to make a human effort to intermingle the mores of Paul and Alice’s pathetic relationship to our contemporary sexist world, encasing Alice in a concrete, triumphal tomb of female servitude for all time. I did not come to the book for this. I would rather have Eleanor Alexander direct my attention to In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (South End Press Classics, V. 5)—or one of those books referenced in her copious notes so we can move on to break new ground. But obviously, this book was not written for me (or anyone like me) and Eleanor Alexander might be singing that one verse from Ella’s Song—when she says, “[She] can be quite difficult… [She] will bow to no man’s word.” So why should she listen to me? I’m just the bearer of the penis.

I was expecting, say, a refreshing association of the poetry of 19th-century African America with the poetry of 21st-century African America. This is a literary subject for a literary historian. Alternatively, it would have been relatively refreshing to read something about the extent upper-crust African Americans of the 1800s embraced the technology of the relatively new U.S. postal system and how the electronic mail of today’s Internet influences the lives of contemporary, elite African Americans. Harold Bloom would hate this, but I would even accept a discussion of the rape case of Tupac Shakur alongside Dunbar’s atrocity. This kind of analysis would have been unusual and informative—especially for an obedient student simply trying to turn in her college paper on time.

Buy this book at! How many elite African-American marriages of the 1990s and 2000s are based on the same type of long-distance relations Alice and Paul lived with in the 1890s? Are the African-American elite still obsessed with a deadly combination of little melanin and lots of money? Do a large percentage of African-descended males still beat the shit out of “their” females when married? Are we still married at all—in any significant numbers? Are any of today’s poets of African descent as famous as Paul Laurence Dunbar was? Are today’s “artists of color” still facing the barriers in front of Paul of Alice when they tried to sell themselves to the “white world”? I apologize for suddenly dumping these questions out on the page. I hope I have your sympathies. I suspect that I do not. First of all, I do not have a doctorate. Secondly, I am defending the books of Moses. Thirdly, I am about to write the next paragraph:

It would have been far more seductive for Eleanor Alexander to use the unconventional marriage of Ida B. Wells and Ferdinand Lee Barnett—contemporaries of Paul and Alice—to highlight the prevailing, overpowering sexism of the time with people who actually lived in that time—living almost counter-culturally. Instead, Dr. Alexander lets us catch a glimpse of the young Ms. Wells flirting with her many suitors. Ah, yes, as a male, I must remember that Eleanor Alexander was not put on this earth to seduce me. Certainly, it must be difficult for me what with my bestial testosterone just waiting for the ultimate moment of female domination. Forgive the sarcasm in these words; I am under the influence of a similar tone in Alexander’s book. You see how I can let a woman influence me? Wow! I think I’ll go tell my mother about my discoveries!

I strongly suspect that Alexander is firmly in the Susan B. Anthony camp when it comes to dealing with subject of Ida B. Wells. Susan B. Anthony was totally pissed off when she found out that Ida B. Wells was getting married. It did not matter that she was still “allowed” to continue her work (including being the first investigative reporter in the United States outside of the context of the Civil War) and that her husband actively (and financially) supported her in her efforts. The bottom line was that Wells was batting for the wrong team—the non-spinster team. To introduce this aspect of Ms. Wells’ life in contrast to that of Alice Ruth Moore would have diminished Ms. Moore even more than the details of her life presented in the book but it would show that not all married females of the time had rape and beatings in store.

I do “give” credit to the author for providing a less-than-ideal portrait of Alice Ruth Moore during Paul Laurence Dunbar’s thorough thrashing. This elevates the exploration of the Dunbar marriage above simplistic, political-cartoon-like assumptions. We find in several sentences that Alice was not an unsuspecting victim. She was more of an opportunist than a virgin. She was closer to a gambling parvenu—status-breeding with a famous male that continually informed her in writing that he was tempted to have liaisons with other women unless she does something about it right away. Her gamble did not pay off. She was left swindled by her own ambitions. You can’t fool an honest man—and in the books of Moses, it is written: Man is made both male and female.

Karen Grigsby Bates interviews Eleanor Alexander in the NPR Tavis Smiley Show for Tuesday, October 15, 2002.

You can find the “complete” poems and short stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Microsoft Encarta Africana Third Edition on CD-ROM or Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2003 on DVD. I don’t recommend a paper book for those with precious shelf space.

For more information about Ida B. Wells, see the CSPAN, interview with author Linda McMurry about her book To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells.

For those of us who are not fond of the Old English of King James, there is the notable translation of George Mamishisho Lamsa, Holy Bible: From Ancient Eastern Text. I remind you that the books of Moses are at the beginning.