Poetry Analysis: "Little Brown Baby" by Dunbar

Emily Maddox By Emily Maddox, 23rd May 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/3otnz9jz/
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Books>Poetry, Drama & Criticism

Dunbar's "Little Brown Baby" says a lot more beneath its surface.


Paul Laurence Dunbar is considered the first important African American poet in American literature, achieving his greatest popularity in the early twentieth century with his dialectic verse. However, dialectic poems make up a small percentage of Dunbar’s body of work. Dunbar is acclaimed for his representation of black life in the early twentieth century. As Dunbar’s friend James Weldon Johnson noted in the preface to “Book of American Poetry,” “He was the first to see objectively its humor, its superstitions, its short-comings; the first to feel sympathetically its heart-wounds, its yearnings, its aspirations, and to voice them all in a purely literary form” (“Paul Laurence Dunbar”). Many of the merits Johnson expressed are present in Dunbar’s poem “Little Brown Baby.”

From the first glance, the reader recognizes “Little Brown Baby” is a dialectic poem. Dunbar’s use of dialect works particularly well here because it creates the effect of speech patterns, which is central to the plot and theme of the poem. The speaker is the baby’s father, who has just come home from work. He looks at his son and teases him and holds him, concluding with the lament that his baby will one day grow up: “Wisht you could allus know ease an’ cleah skies;/Wisht you could stay jes’ a chile on my breas’--/Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes!” (Dunbar Lines 30-32). These lines work on a few levels. On one level is the common lament parents have that their children will grow up, but in this case, the speaker is concerned with the future his son will have.

While Dunbar gives “Little Brown Baby” a lighthearted and humorous tone for the most part, he also includes some of the “heart-wounds,” as Johnson wrote. These are present in the speaker’s concerns for his son’s future. One day, his son will lose his smile and his “spa’klin eyes.” He’ll go “outen de do’ in de san,’” (17) where his father teases to “th’ow him,” (17) and he’ll truly be “es du’ty ez” (4) his father. But for now, his son is happy. He has sparkling eyes and a smile that never leaves his face. He’s content, staying inside the house with his mother, “makin’ san’ pies” (3) instead of working outside in the dirt and grit like his father.

The speaker chooses to enjoy the moments of his son’s innocence and joy. He’ll hold the outside world, “ol’ buggah,” (26) at bay, and hold his son “up close” (25). The speaker needs his son: “He’s pappy’s pa’dner an’ play-mate an’ joy” (28). In this way, the son’s joy is likely one of the few sources of joy in the speaker’s life, and the speaker is desperate to protect it for his sake, as well as his son’s.

At its core, “Little Brown Baby” represents the importance of family, love, joy, and humor in the face of the “heart-wounds” that occur in the daily life of the speaker--and the African American race as a whole during the turn-of-the century. The poem possesses many of the merits James Weldon Johnson notes about Dunbar’s writing.


Literary Analysis, Literary Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Poetry Analysis, Poetry With Meaning

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author avatar Emily Maddox
I'm a recent college graduate with an English MA. I write primarily about music, literature, writing, and teaching writing.

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